The Short Version: Luke is 25 and apparently allergic to nearly everything, including the sun. His best friend Julie is scared of lots of things and, as such, won’t leave their hometown. But when Luke is given a chance to be cured, they must face their respective challenges and, with a gang of four other crazy friend, take a VW Camper van out to Wales. Hijinks ensue.
The Review: Scarlett Thomas is probably my favorite author who I always forget that I love. The End of Mr. Y and Bright Young Things loom large in my brain and PopCo and Our Tragic Universe are weird, intelligent books that I almost want to take a crack at again. She writes about big ideas and without apology: you have to really pay attention when you read one of her books and be willing to go with the occasional lack of plot, the psychological/intellectual digressions, and the general abundance of aimless youths. It’s what makes her best books really sing and makes even her weaker ones worth giving a shot.
This one is… well, it’s actually probably the most mundane of her books. The plot outlines are a bit strange (boy with immense allergies to everything under and including the sun, the New Age stuff that seeps in around the edges – a theme, I’ve discovered, of Thomas’ books) and for a while you wonder when we’re going to get to the actual journey that the back cover promises. Except, this being a Scarlett Thomas novel, we’re not actually there for the journey itself: we’re there for the people going on the journey and the intellectual trips they must also take. And so, yes, the first more-than-half of the novel sees our hero and heroine and their friends in Essex, England – living their small town lives and wondering what it might be like elsewhere. Nothing feels quite like small-towns, though, not really. There’s something else at work in the background, something that seeks to address the human condition more directly. But it takes place in a small town and so small-town-y it attempts to be. And the characters are enjoyable, if all a bit predictable. Even Luke and Julie, our main duo, go through predictable ups and downs with each other and with their friends. The learning, growing portion of their hero’s journey is pretty much what you expect it to be.
But there’s something nice about that, too. Perhaps it’s the time of year, perhaps it’s the shitty state of the world these days, perhaps it’s something else entirely – but I think it can be lovely to send your characters off on an adventure and know exactly where they’re going to end up, even if the steps aren’t quite what you’d predict. And at the end of the novel, which wraps up with an excerpt from The Wizard of Oz, I cracked a smile and realized that Thomas was attempting to write her own modern version of the moral of that story. No, not the going-off-the-gold-standard story that some theorists think Baum was getting at (and William Jennings Bryan was somehow involved, as he often was) but rather the “it was in you all along” thing. That can be nice to hear sometimes and it was a happy occasion to see our troupers get to the end of this particular leg of the journey.
But I was, I will admit, a little disappointed in this one – simply because it didn’t force the same level of intellectual engagement as even Bright Young Things. There’s quite a bit of talk in the back half of the novel about imaginary numbers and quantum theory / multiverse theory – but it’s nothing mind-blowing. We’re not actually exploring those possibilities, simply mentioning them. It’s almost as though this novel (and BYT, for that matter) had to come first, before Thomas could get into some of the crazier stuff as she does in the ensuing three novels. Reading it with those books in mind creates a slightly different expectation than, perhaps, you might’ve seen reading them in publication order. Just something to be aware of, I suppose.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a fun, light story even though it deals with some serious issues (illness, listlessness, insecurity, depression, etc) at times. The scenes where the gang of the six of them are putting together Luke’s “space suit” are a hoot and I was reminded of being young and doing stupid things with my friends in high school. The fact that the main characters in this book are all about my age just reminds me that we are allowed to be young and listless and goofy still – and that when the opportunity to take an adventure arises, whether it’s buying a lifetime subscription to a magazine or taking a three week unexpected trip to Cambodia or anything in between or outside those bounds at all, you might as well. Who knows what you might discover?