This month I read Across the Universe, to determine whether or not it is a Romance Novel, capital R, capital N, by which I mean a story in which the love story is the main focus and a happy ever after is reached. I was drawn to this novel for two reasons. First, it’s a fairly new release that got a lot of buzz when it came out in January of this year. Second, it just screams “Teen Angst Romance”. The front cover has a dreamy picture of two people almost kissing, backlit against a background of pink and purple stars. The back cover has two characters verbally swooning all over each other. If, being a total scumbag cheater like myself, you peek at the end (DON”T DO IT!) It looks like there is a HEA. So, this is clearly being sold as a novel of Teen Angst Romance.
But, (and this is really cool, BTW) the reverse side of the book jacket has a blueprint of a spaceship and no pink in sight. I felt it was my sacred duty as a geek to tell you readers whether or not this book is really the perfect vanilla chocolate swirl frozen yogurt of hard sci fi and romance. Short answer – it isn’t. It’s a good book, absolutely deserving of an A- on it’s own terms. I highly recommend it. But I can’t assign it a grade as a “Romance Novel” because it isn’t one, although it is a tentative love story – something of a prelude to a romance. Mild spoilers ahead.
In brief, the plot concerns Amy, a teenage girl who was cryogenically frozen as one of the colonists for a new planet. An unknown assailant wakes her up before the planet is reached, almost killing her in the process, and thus making my frozen yogurt metaphor rather ill chosen. Amy finds herself trapped on the spaceship, which has been in space for hundreds of years and developed its own society, led by a despot named Eldest. Her ally is Elder, a teenage boy who is being groomed to succeed Eldest, and who is fascinated by Amy. The book is told in first person, present tense point of view, alternating between Elder and Amy (more on that later).
Turns out, this book is absolutely not a Romance Novel. The cover lies, Dear Bitches. But, it is a fabulous science fiction novel with strong romantic elements. Many reviewers have expressed frustration with the book because they expect a Romance Novel, and it fails on those terms. Hey, marketers who designed the swoony cover, whose fault is it that your readers expect a Romance Novel? Oh right – you guys. But, leaving the marketers aside, readers who fault the love story are missing the point. (Spoilers ahoy)
The point is that Elder is NOT in love with Amy. He doesn’t know her. He doesn’t understand her or even empathize with her much, because he has no frame of reference. He doesn’t even understand the concept of romantic love, since in his world reproduction happens in strictly regulated cycles and pairs rarely form. Amy is just new, in a world where nothing is new. Elder is curious and slightly obsessed and very attracted, but for most of the book he lacks the capacity and maturity to be in love. Likewise, Amy is not in love with Elder. Amy isn’t worried about her love life; she’s worried about her survival, and the survival of her frozen parents. For most of the book, she is able to form far closer emotional ties to some of the supporting characters than to Elder. Elder is an afterthought, someone with whom she is loosely allied, but can’t trust.
That’s not to say that interesting things don’t take place between Amy and Elder. They push each other into growth without meaning to. At the start of the book, Elder is teetering on the brink of becoming his own person. Amy’s presence forces him to choose his role on the spaceship – is he a leader, or a pawn? Amy has her own changes to face. She becomes increasingly aware that she can’t get off the ship. There is nowhere to go. Amy, even more than Elder, has to decide what role she will play in her new life. Above all, the two characters, especially Elder, have to grapple with moral choices, especially that of telling the truth even when it’s hurtful, as opposed to letting people live in ignorant bliss. I cannot praise this book highly enough for how it handled this dilemma. There are no easy answers, and no platitudes. I really admired how painfully and realistically the author tackled this as the characters struggle with the merits and potentially disastrous consequences of telling the truth to their whole society and to each other.
Other things to praise include the wonderful world building, the layers of mystery and deception, the supporting characters, and the vivid descriptions. The opening scene of Amy and her family being prepared for hibernation, and subsequent scenes of her dreaming/waking state during hibernation, are absolutely horrifying. Some of the most horrifying moments are the most understated, as when characters responds to events that Amy considers to be appalling with nothing more than boredom.
BTW, if you are looking for the hot sexxoring, you’re in the wrong book. There’s one moment of smooching in the rain, but that’s it. On the other hand there is a graphic near rape, not to mention the freezing sequence. So this is not the place to go for erotica. I also realize that first person narrative is a turn off for many people, especially present tense first person narrative, but I think the author pulled it off well. So even if it’s not your preferred style, if the book sounds intriguing otherwise, give it a shot. I’m often irritated by that technique but in this case it gave the narrative a huge sense of urgency, and explained a lot about the motives of the protagonists.
Warning – this paragraph is a bit spoilery even though I’m trying to stay non-specific. Feel free to skip. Oh, and when you’re reading the book, no peeking ahead or you’ll be sorry (Mwa ha ha). OK, now that you’ve been warned, HERE GOES – SPOILERS AHEAD:
I know I keep saying that Across the Universe is not a Romance Novel. I say that because the characters lack a real relationship for most of the book, and because I felt like the happiness or sadness of the story, especially Amy’s part of the story, didn’t depend on the romantic resolution. However, the book does ultimately become a very tentative, delicate, well-drawn love story. At the end, there is no swooping Happily Ever After. Frankly, if there were, it would be creepy. Instead, a massive gesture of courage is answered with the teeniest hint of trust and hope.
I felt like I was reading the prelude to a love story as opposed to the Main Event. I loved the prelude and how it came together, no pun intended, and I hope Revis will write a sequel in which we can see Amy and Elder form a romance as two people who actually know each other as opposed to two people who see each other in idealized or strategic terms.