Our thirteen-year-old heroine loves to paint, hates math, and would rather be barefoot at all times. Oh, and did we mention that she sees colors whenever she hears sounds or reads? Because she does. And we mean literally.
Check out what Mia says about the way she views the world:
Just walking through the halls at school is a totally overwhelming experience. The hall is filled with layers of color. It's beautiful to watch, but I tend to keep bumping into people. Balls and tendrils are floating everywhere, and of course I'm late for homeroom. (12.23)
Can you even imagine? Well, if you're a synesthete like Mia, then perhaps you can. But for most of us, this sounds more like a dream than reality.
As Mia's actual lived experience, though, seeing colors all the time comes with some upsides and some downsides. On the upside, it helps her paint and remember stuff really well, plus the colors are pretty. On the downside, though, seeing colors when she tries to read makes it tricky to do math or learn Spanish. And because of this, while it's clear that Mia's synesthesia is something she really likes in a lot of ways, it's also something she has to figure out how to tame sometimes, too. In other words, Mia needs to learn to control her colors a bit.
For Mia, her experience of synesthesia is closely tied to her classmates making fun of her in third grade. Since no one believed her when she first spoke up about the colors as a kid, as a teen she's scared to tell anybody about them, including her best friend and her parents. There's a whole lot of shame wrapped up in Mia's sense of herself as different. Check out what goes through her head when she meets Billy for the first time:
The laughter of my classmates pops into my head. Freeeek. They made me question the first eight years of my life, and now this little boy is making me question the last five. If he isn't lying, if he really sees my name that way, then everything I thought I knew about myself is wrong. (2.93)
Billy sees colors, too, and this revelation throws Mia for a major loop. After living with shame and a secret for so long, convinced that she's different in a bad way, she's wary of the idea that perhaps she isn't such a weirdo. But on the flipside, if she admits that she sees colors, too, and Billy's just messing with her, then Mia's afraid she'll be ostracized all over again. No wonder she's afraid to fess up, right?
Thanks for a couple of failed math tests, though, Mia can't keep her colors a secret any longer. Telling her parents is a major breakthrough that leads to Mia learning the name of her condition (she's a synesthete), as well as coming to understand that while it's unusual, there are plenty of other people out there who have it, too, and there's nothing actually wrong with her.
Mia learns that being different isn't wrong; it's just different. She spends so long hiding the fact that she can see colors that she doesn't stop to think about the cool stuff that comes with being a synesthete. It isn't until she confides in her parents and shares her secret with Jenna (who then shares it with another girl, who shares it with everyone else) that she really learns who she is. And it's not so bad after all.
One way Mia figures out that being a synesthete isn't the end of the world is by smooching Adam at the synesthesia party:
I stop rambling and he smiles at me. If my palms weren't already sweating, they would be right now. It was about time I had my first kiss. It seems fitting that it should be with another synesthete, since we know each other so well. (13.35)
Here Mia is attracted to someone who's also a synesthete. And if Adam is such a dreamboat, then being a synesthete can't be all bad, right? In other words, in being attracted to Adam, Mia also shifts her understanding of synesthesia as something only to be ashamed of. With Adam, it's part of her desire.
Importantly, though, while meeting Adam (and other synesthetes) helps Mia make peace with her colorful life, she ultimately has to learn that just because some is a synesthete doesn't mean they're a particularly good friend. As she opens herself up to synesthesia, she sort of puts the synesthetes she meets on a pedestal, ignoring the friends she's had for years simply because they're not part of this new world Mia's joined.
When Mango dies, though, the pedestal crumbles. Adam is cold about Mia's beloved pet's death, but Jenna and Mia's other non-synesthete friends that she's been blowing off show up to comfort her, fully appreciating just how big the loss of her beloved kitty is.
In the end, Mia's proud to be a synesthete but also knows this isn't all she is. Sure, she can see colors when she hears music, but she's much more than that. She's a cat-lover, painter, history buff, and more, and she has the friends to prove it.