Long time, no see! Let’s not do that again. After some time off from writing, I am back at it again –
(at the worst possible time, admittedly. I’ll be hanging out at BookExpo all week. Whoops.)
– With some exciting books to review, thanks to NetGalley (and my overwhelming stack of books that I’ve never gotten to, ANYWAY.)
Let’s start with the much awaited sequel to a classic.
The Universe is Expanding
and So Am I
By Carolyn Mackler
Release Date: May 29, 2018
Price: $17.99 (USD)
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury YA for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.
*Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse, rape.
I first discovered this series as a a young high school student. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, released in 2003, was legendary for me and my friends. I can only assume, though, that it meant a little more to me. I understood the character of Virginia Shreves. I knew what it was like to walk the halls and feel heavier than everyone else. To me, she was an idol and I found myself returning to the book more times than I can count. Virginia gave me strength. If she could ignore the world and be her best self, so could I.
Imagine my utter joy when I found out that there would be a sequel. Fifteen years later! A sequel!
High school sophomore Virginia Shreves is heading into a turbulent time. She’s fallen out of like with boyfriend Froggy, her best friend is on the opposite coast and often without cell service, her favorite kickboxing class has been taken over by her arch nemesis, and worst of all, her brother Byron has been accused of sexually harassing a fellow student at Columbia. Her one saving grace is Sebastian, an adorable, clumsy artist she meets while on a conquest for bagels. But Virginia soon discovers that even her relationship with Sebastian is complicated. Can love overcome all?
I haven’t picked up the first book in this series in ages. But I didn’t have to. The story came flooding back and I remembered why I loved Carolyn Mackler’s writing. She’s funny. Her characters are filled with empathy and you find yourself glued to every page. I picked this book up on a Saturday. I abandoned a different book to finish it within the day. I needed to find out what happened and as a result, I flew through the pages of this book.
As always in these books, there’s fat girl representation (much appreciated, Carolyn Mackler). There’s LGBTQ+ representation in this novel, which I was happy to see. And I enjoy Mackler’s ever-present message that people are more complex than they originally seem. Mackler’s writing is deep, important, and soulful. I remembered at once just how much I loved her storytelling and the chronicles of Virginia Shreves.
As much as I loved how this book was written, I couldn’t forgive one very important aspect of it:
The victim of sexual abuse was not painted in a very fair way, nor did she receive a fair ending.
I get it. Byron is Virginia’s brother. We’re sympathetic to Virginia so we are naturally sympathetic to Byron. But what about the girl he assaulted? She’s often painted throughout the book as someone who is mentally unstable. She’s not “dealing with her abuse well” and so she takes Byron to court.
That, to me, makes it sound like she’s getting revenge. Not that she’s trying to heal.
And honestly [major spoiler alert], I find it very unfair and very irresponsible to allow Sebastian and Virginia to end up happily together at the close of the novel. Sebastian is the brother of Annie Mills, the young woman Virginia’s brother assaulted. To force these two families together and to force Annie to relieve her abuse at every encounter is simply cruel.
I appreciate that this is a different story. This is Virginia’s experience as someone innocent who is unfortunately tied to someone very much not innocent. And I appreciate that at the end of the novel, her family admits that their perfect son and brother did do something cruel. It’s a tricky topic to cover and I do think that Mackler was close to being successful with such a story.
Was this a happy ending? No, not to me. I felt uncomfortable at the ending, especially with all the news surrounding the #MeToo movement in recent months. We want victims of abuse to feel comfortable naming their assaulters and finding justice. Instead, in this book, Annie’s abuse was often swept under the rug in favor of a more appealing story. She was told to get over it for the sake of a summer fling.
Unfortunately, that was unforgivable to me.
I loved this book the entire way through. However, I couldn’t find peace with its ending. In this era of female triumph where women are finally being heard, we can’t tell girls that their assault is less important than a teenage romance.
(That isn’t to downplay the importance of teenage romance. I believe in it above all others. But when compared to something as severe and traumatizing as sexual abuse, sexual abuse takes precedence.)
I give this book 3 stars. It truly is written beautifully. The final message, though, is not as poignant and powerful as it should be. Instead, I can see it being harmful to the readers who have lived through abuse in the same way Annie Mills did. There was a neat way to wrap up this story and I wonder if it’ll come in the form of a sequel. In this volume, however, I didn’t get the peaceful and moral ending I was hoping for.
For any of you at BookExpo, I’ll see you there! It’s my first one so I’m trying not to have a panic attack over it. But I’ve been promised free books so…a girl’s gotta love that. Stay tuned! If I survive BookExpo, I’ll have a fun recipe from The Universe is Expanding and So Am I. As a native New Yorker, I can’t resist giving it a try.