Signal To Noise is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel, the story of three teens growing up in Mexico City in 1988. There’s an unraveled mix tape on the cover with the marketing starburst “for fans of Stranger Things.” It’s perhaps the most blunt marketing I’ve seen; the title is also in the same font as the popular Netflix show. The funny thing is, this book has nearly nothing in common with the series. To even compare the two is bizarre; one has paranormal elements, one focuses on spells and magic. Signal To Noise is far closer to The Craft, but that’s not what the kids are watching these days, as incredible a film as that is. I’m guessing that it was the head of marketing at Solaris Books that made this decision, but if it helps get cool books sold, I’m fine with that.
The story focuses mainly on Meche, a nickname for the mercurial Mercedes, and Sebastian — and how they love each other, however indirectly. Their friend Daniela is there, too, but the book is more concerned with the fighting and teen jealousies between Meche, who’s obsessed with music, and Sebastian, who loves books. As the unofficial head of the pack, Meche decides on most things, and as it happens, she wants the group to try magic. You see, she feels like there’s inherent magic in the records she plays, and suspects her grandmother of once being a powerful witch.
Does Meche have magic in her as well? She does — and she can feel heat in the vinyl LPs, the hotter, the stronger the magic. Signal To Noise is a slow burn of a book, but once it gets going, it’s great. In between the usual teen drama, it’s fun to read about her searches for certain albums, like A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum, and the spells that the group can derive from these records. The kids make a money spell, a love spell, a spell to harm a pervy teacher, and a spell to embarrass the principal at a school rally. Those are the times when Signal To Noise worked best for me — in its concoction of magic — and in the human conflicts that unfold both before and after the spells.
The altercation between the teachers and the kids are painfully human, particularly when one teacher makes unwanted advances towards Daniela. It’s good, sad storytelling, if that wasn’t clear. Meche takes serious revenge on the guy, and I think if every teen girl had a similar sort of power when dealing with these situations, they’d do the same thing — particularly within a system that’s meant to discredit them and award the perpetrators.
If Meche was indeed in The Craft, she’d be Nancy. She’s not quite as over-the-top as that character, but her parents no longer love each other, and she was born with a sharp edge — just like her mother. Meaning, her anger fuels her actions, and she thinks nothing of getting revenge on those who hurt her and her friends. After all, they deserve to be just as hurt, if not worse, right? Of course, there’s that whole bothersome “but at what cost” element, which makes things really interesting.
Meche wants local hotshot jock Constantino (for some odd reason), and Sebastian lusts (thoughtfully) after Isadora, the rich, pretty girl in school. Of course, Constantino and Isadora are an off-again, on-again couple with plenty of petty jealousies to go around. The objects of Meche and Sebastian’s desires are each positioned as out of their league, but what’s a few love spells? Soon, there’s dancing, dates, and a serious beat down. I half-expected a magic, witch-warlock confrontation of skills and spells — and it’s headed towards that — but thankfully we’re spared any sort of cheesy denouement.
The story oscillates between 1988 and 2009, when Meche returns home to Mexico City (from her adopted Oslo, Norway) to attend the funeral of her father. He’s a bit of tragic figure — a music lover (just like Meche), a DJ, and a failed novelist. He has big dreams, but never quite manages to accomplish any of them due to a few fatal leaps of faith. His hopes of living by the sea in Puerto Vallarta, finding love, and finishing that damn manuscript never come to fruition. If only he could get out of his own way.
Every character within Signal To Noise seems to go down their own road of pain in varying forms. Whether its loss of love, family, innocence, or friendship, the people in this book feel very real. Sometimes you want to shake the hell out of them, or hug them. In any case, the book is a truthful reflection — and warning — on the consequences of paths not chosen.