Feels like: Being in eleventh grade and watching the teacher talk, but listening to loud rock music in your headphones.
Song pairing: The Scientist by Coldplay
(And the music from the book. Tommy Wallach is also a musician and composed an entire album to go with his debut novel!)
This book opens with teenage angst. The popular jock guy has everything he could ever want, but has recently had a philosophical awakening and wonders if there’s more to life than football stardom and a pretty girlfriend. The artsy “school slut” photographer hasn’t told anyone her dad is dying of cancer, because no one would listen. The uptight rich girl’s parents have high academic expectations when all she wants is to be a famous singer. And the group of stoner outcasts hole up every weekend in someone’s basement doing drugs and listening to punk music.
Soon, we find out there are unlikely connections within these factions. The jock, the photographer, and one of the stoners are in a love triangle. That same stoner is a good musician. One of the girls in the stoner group is the jock’s troubled younger sister, fallen in with a bad crowd. The rich girl is making plans to run away from home.
And then the big one hits. Literally. President Obama announces that a meteor is two months away from the earth, and there is only a one in three chance that it will pass by. Each one of these kids, equally spotlighted in this well-crafted ensemble story, has to decide what they’re going to do in their last two months on earth. That’s when the story really begins.
One of the best parts of We All Looked Up is the way Wallach paints a picture of an entire society collectively waiting for the end. It is equal parts subtle and drastic. Nine out of ten businesses close and malls become looting grounds overnight, but a lot of people continue to show up at their jobs day after day because they crave routine. The streets are more full at night of partiers, drunks, and people who now feel that they have nothing to lose. The suicide rate climbs, but there is no mention of an elevated murder count. The scene of the end of the world is masterfully set because it acknowledges that every single person would react in a way that makes sense for them. We see this in more depth with the group of main characters, but the human condition as a whole is really well-represented by the way Wallach describes the environment.
This book also does what a teen book is supposed to do: inspires young readers. In this case, it inspires them to do things they’ve always thought about doing even if it’s outside their comfort zone. Wallach hands readers this lesson against the backdrop of the end of the world, but for a lot of teenagers, it would take nothing less than a pre-apocalyptic society to do something they’re afraid of. They branch out of their usual groups and form real bonds with people to whom they may never have spoken otherwise. They stop thinking about where they’ll go to college in the fall, because all that matters is right this second. In a way, the teenagers in this book realize there’s a good chance they’ll never be adults. This forces them to mature and interact with one another differently than high school students would. They forge friendships based on common interests and chemistry, not who sits at the Cool Table.
Because this is a novel and not real life, the story needs a climax and a culminating moment where everyone seems peaceful before the meteor hits. So the group of teenagers teams up with a group of local hippies to put on a Woodstock-esque festival. The stoner and the rich girl play a concert together, shortly after losing their virginity to each other (end of the world, remember?). The photo chick basks in her Tumblr-induced fame, making a speech to the crowd about how she never expected her apocalypse blog to become so popular. She and her dad, who isn’t concerned about the end of the world because he’s already dying, peacefully watch the sky as Zero Hour approaches. And then…
I can’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that as a reader I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way this book ends. As with all stories where you bond with the characters, I want to know what happens to them. When I read a book with a less-than-satisfactory level of resolution, I feel like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars asking Peter VanHouten what happens to the hamster. I know I can’t know everything, and I know they’re fictional people, but I fell in love with them. So if you read this book, be warned: very little is resolved at the end, but you will enjoy it very much.
“Walking upstairs with Ms. Cahill, Eliza couldn’t help but imagine herself a convict, traipsing the long corridor toward the electric chair. Each classroom she passed was a prison cell; from inside came the desperate screams of chalk on chalkboard and the sighs of tortured teenagers spending what might be their last hours on Earth learning about the causes of the Peloponnesian War and the best way to ask for directions in German” (p. 158-9)
“They laughed. The asteroid was a little bigger now, brighter, and still they went on laughing. Laughing in the face of what they couldn’t predict or change or control. Would it be fire and brimstone? Would it be Armageddon? Or would it be a second chance?” (p. 370)
Jeselyn is a children and teen librarian in Mesa, AZ and a lifelong passionate reader and writer.
Check out her early literacy/homeschooling/ book review/library storytime blog at http://momandauntie.blogspot.