We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (Simon & Schuster, 26 March 2015)
WE ALL LOOKED UP is a breathtaking story about love, and four teenagers at the end of the world.
An asteroid nicknamed Ardor is hurtling towards Earth. There's a 66.6% chance that the world will come to an end and that everyone will die. Peter, Eliza, Andy, and Anita all go to the same high school in Seattle. Peter is a star basketball player. He's been going out with his girlfriend Stacy for years, but a year ago he kissed Eliza in a darkroom and he's never been able to forget that kiss. Eliza is a photographer, and she's never been able to forget that kiss either – not that anyone would let her, considering how she's been branded the school slut since she was caught kissing Peter in that darkroom. Andy is a stoner and he's never seen much point in anything, but, since he's determined not to die a virgin, he makes it his goal to sleep with Eliza before the end. Anita's been living her whole life under the rule of her strict father, but her dream is to sing – and maybe now that the world is ending, her dream can finally can true.
The writing in this book is exquisite, dazzling, the kind of prose that leaves you breathless at its beauty and frantically highlighting quotes. There are so many arresting and searingly memorable moments and passages about life and love. At the beginning of the book, a character has this lovely insight:
The best books, they don't talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you'd always thought about, but that you didn't think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you're a bit less alone in the world. You're part of this cosmic community of people who've thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be.
And Wallach has crafted exactly such a book. He puts words to feelings that you thought couldn't be described. It's pitch perfect and magical.
This book is about the extraordinary in the ordinary. It's really about very ordinary things. I have to admit that I found the first half of the book a little slow, but it picked up a lot by the second half. The world may be ending, but here are just four teenagers, living their lives, struggling to be themselves, to find some meaning in their lives, while they wait for an asteroid to hit the Earth. There's some typical teenage drama, but everything seems so much more heightened by the imminent potential apocalypse, and it's all so much more beautiful and precious and everyone's feelings are so much bigger.
I didn't know quite how to feel about the inclusion of trans side character who was at one point labelled as Jess-who-used-to-be-a-girl. That's not how it works, if he's a boy then he's a boy – he was never a girl. I guess you can just take that as the ignorance of the POV character, but it doesn't annoy me any less – honestly, I don't see the need for him to be called "Jess-who-used-to-be-a-girl" at all in the narrative. It makes it seem a bit like it's meant to be a joke? Which it shouldn't be. On the other hand, I liked that none of the characters saw it as a big deal that Jess was trans, and the correct pronoun was always used for Jess even when describing his coming out process in the past. I have to say, having the presence of the trans side character just made me think it might have been a lot better to have a trans character as one of the main POVs instead of just there on the side where his voice was silenced. But I digress. I just like talking about LGBTQ characters, okay.
While I was utterly absorbed by Peter and Eliza's stories and the way they were tangled up in each other, I didn't find Andy and Anita's love story as convincing or interesting. Anita's a wonderful character in her own right, but I never quite managed to warm to Andy. He's kind of a dick through most of the book, and while it's understandable because of his toxic friendship with his best friend, Bobo, who truly becomes a pretty nasty and irredeemable character, it's still hard for me to like Andy. He's a good guy underneath it all, I know, but in comparison to the other characters in the book I just find it difficult to care about him as much. I didn't quite see how Anita came to have feelings for him or vice versa.
But holy shit, Peter and Eliza. PETER AND ELIZA. My heart. Peter is honestly such a sweet guy and an absolute hero. I love that he was a jock but he was thoughtful and full of self-awareness. He cares so much, it's amazing. He's brave and protective and kind. He and Eliza were so beautiful together.
Eliza's character was so relatable too. I loved everything about her. Her quiet strength and her cynicism. The way she counted down until the asteroid with how many times she'd get to do each thing again before the world ended: from brushing her teeth to masturbating. (Yes, a book with such a candid approach towards female masturbation!)
I am so in love with the way Wallach depicted how her life changed when she was caught kissing Peter in that darkroom because everyone started slut-shaming her. And the phrase "slut-shaming" was even used in this book! I loved the way the book examined double standards, and how hard it is for women, who are constantly judged and watched by everyone. I love how the female characters in this book bonded over this, over their shared experience of being female, and how Anita, who started out judging Eliza and being slightly hostile towards her, grew to realise that her attitude towards Eliza was irrational.
Anita wondered exactly why she’d been so bitchy and judgmental about Eliza, who was just another girl struggling with the same stuff that every girl had to struggle with.
So, it's four teenagers coming together and realising that there's so much more to their lives than they could have ever imagined, just as their lives may be about to come to an end. It's funny and sweet and terrifying and achingly sad. It will make your heart feel impossibly heavy and full, and it will leave you itching to go out there and live your life as brilliantly as only you can ever live it and to love somebody with your whole heart. To be a person who has everything to lose: because, as this book teaches us, that's the best way to live.