This book is the perfect example of a well-done, bittersweet story. It's not a romance in a happy ever after sense, but despite the pain in the story, it left me feeling uplifted, not depressed, and it left me with a wonderful image of truly selfless love.
Above is about a teenager, named Matthew, who lives in an underground, secret settlement of people who have strange mutations (the place is called 'Safe'). He has a mutation consisting of scales on his feet and back. Because they can be covered by clothing, he is able to pass as a regular person, and so he is often sent 'Above' to collect supplies for the community.
Matthew is madly in love with Ariel, an anxious, fearful girl who grows and sheds wings. More than anything, Matthew wants to be with Ariel, and keep her Safe. That's not a typo – the word has several layers of meaning in the story but it is always capitalized and always very significant. But is apparent from the first page that Ariel and Matthew want very different things from life.
It also become quickly apparent that Safe is a place that holds secrets and the seeds of violence. When an attack drives Matthew, Ariel, and two other survivors Above, they learn that neither Safe nor Above were quite what they had been told. This is very much a story about keeping a strong ethical center while also realizing that the world is a complex place of shades of grey.
In Safe, people tell stories about how they were mistreated by the medical establishment and by others Above. Because Matthew was raised in Safe, he doesn't have any basis for comparison, and he views Above with fear and hostility. One thing I loved about the story was that it didn't shy away from describing the way the medical world had failed and mistreated the inhabitants of Safe – but it also acknowledges that some people have illnesses, both physical and mental, that can't be cured solely by love and reassurance. It's a surprisingly balanced book. Here's a quote from a doctor who helps Matthew and his friends:
“You don't agree with Safe,” I said.
“That there should be such a place? Yes…with the whispering and the hiding and teaching your children to fear and hate? No. I don't agree with Safe at all.”
Matthew thinks he's in a difficult but straightforward story: defeat the enemies of Safe, convince Ariel to stay there, and make her feel so safe that her anxieties will disappear. He ends up in a more complicated story – how to keep Safe a much needed sanctuary without allowing it to be a prison made of fear and deceit, and how to get Ariel the help she needs without letting her be abused, either in Safe or Above.
A couple of quick notes – this book is notable for having main characters who have been considered disabled. They are aided by “normal” people. In another book, the “normal” person might have been the protagonist, and we'd see the “disabled” through their eyes. Then the “normal” would help the “others” and the “normal” would grow as a person. It was refreshing that the story was told in first person by one of the residents of Safe (Matthew). It's his story, and the residents of Above are important characters – but side characters never the less. I also enjoyed the fact that the cast of characters is diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and race, gender, and sexuality.
Resemblances to the TV show Beauty and the Beast are not coincidental, and fans of that show (ME!) will like this richly textured story. That's not to say that the book is derivative or fan fiction. Bobet seems to have been inspired by the idea of an underground community which provides a haven for people who look different, but she very much makes the setting her own.
The only reason why I'm giving this book a B+ instead of an A is that I never understood the Shadows, enemy forces that attack Safe. This may be because I was really tired when I read the book. A more observant reader might say, “Duh, CarrieS, it's right there on page 13 – a full, clear explanation of everything that's going on”. Actually there is a pretty good explanation, but not until near the end of the book, and that's a long time to wait to know who it is who keeps attacking our heroes, and how they work. This is one of those books that's all about emotions and ideas and not about mechanics. That's not a bad thing, but I think I would have been more interested in the action if I had understood what was happening better.
Obviously this isn't a romance novel, for many reasons. It's a coming of age story with a bittersweet resolution. I do think that romance readers looking for a change of pace will enjoy this book – the romance aspect of it is realistic and despite the fact that the guy doesn't get the girl (that's not much of a spoiler – it's REALLY apparent that things won't go well for Matthew by the end of the first chapter), it felt like something of an HEA anyway. I felt that everyone ended up where they needed to be, and that made me feel content. Even though Matthew and Ariel don't have a HEA together, I felt hopeful that they would have one apart, and that was OK with me. Just this once.