Russian-born Alina Bronsky made a splash with 2011’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, with praise from sources as varied as The Daily Beast and the Financial Times. She’s back with a third novel, Just Call Me Superhero, serving up more biting wit and a no-frills style that readers can eat up in big, satisfying chunks.
It’s been a year since Marek, a 17-year-old from Berlin, was mauled by a Rottweiler. Perpetually hidden behind sunglasses, he avoids mirrors and most people, struggling with their shocked reactions to the sight of his face. It takes a trick by his mother, no-nonsense divorce lawyer Claudia, to get him to a support group, but one look at the beautiful wheelchair-bound Janne keeps him at the meeting. Though he despises his other new cohorts and their leader, dubbed “the Guru,” his longing for the ice-cold Janne keeps him coming back. A trip to the countryside tests his maturity and puts him at odds with the group, but when a family emergency calls him away, he finds he might need those “cripples” more than he realized. Whisked off to the home of his young stepmother and the half-brother he barely knows, Marek faces a gauntlet of challenges to his self-absorption. Through this, he begins his journey to self-acceptance.
A twist ending comes out of left field, but the sum of Just Call Me Superhero is greater than its disparate plot parts: Bronsky’s sharp humor, her deftly painted characters and Marek’s strong narrative voice are all it needs. A painful, tender, very funny bildungsroman void of sentimentality, Bronsky’s book captures contemporary European adolescence in one delicious swoop. Adults and teens should enjoy it equally.