We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
Genre: Young adult contemporary/apocalyptic
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 24 2015
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A beautifully written but uneven story about a group of high school seniors who contemplate life and death as an asteroid hurtles towards Earth.
Eliza liked Kevin, more than he liked himself, at any rate. She wanted to tell him that high school was a little like a play in which everybody got cast prematurely, and he’d ended up with a pretty crappy role. If he could just survive until college, he’d get to try out for a new play, one with plenty of good parts for people like him.
People talked about their days being numbered, but really, everything was numbered. Every movie you watched was the last time you’d watch that movie, or the second-to-last time, or the third-to-last. Every kiss was one kiss closer to your last kiss.
After seeing this intriguing cover last year, I added We All Looked Up to my most anticipated YA reads of 2015. And honestly, this cover is perfect for the story. If you’re expecting a high-stakes apocalyptic tale of impending doom—an asteroid is on course to hit Earth in a matter of weeks—you won’t find it here. This is more of a contemplative story about a group of somewhat messed up high schoolers trying to figure out whether they’re wasting their lives or not. I imagine the kids on this cover seeing the asteroid and saying, “Wow, look. An asteroid. Cool.” This story is all about the characters and their relationships to each other, and the asteroid—nicknamed “Ardor”—is merely background noise, a puzzling and mildly interesting thing that may or may not change their lives forever.
The story revolves around four high school seniors who live in Seattle. Peter is a star athlete and a golden boy who seems to have it all. Eliza seeks escape from the realities of her terminally ill father and a bad reputation at school with heavy drinking and sex. Andy is a struggling musician who is hanging out with the wrong crowd. And Anita is a Princeton-bound senior with a secret desire to be a singer. When a strange blue star in the sky is identified as asteroid ARDR-1388, the news is grim: it looks like it’s on a collision course with Earth, and scientists can even pinpoint the date it might hit.
Faced with the possibility of impending death, the four begin to reevaluate their lives in different ways. Peter wonders if being a football star is all there is to life. Andy and Anita decide to hold an End of the World Party where they plan to perform one of Andy’s original songs. And Eliza, an accomplished photographer, starts to document the sudden chaos around the city caused by the news of Ardor, and starts a blog called Apocalypse Already, which goes viral almost overnight. As Ardor draws nearer, the story culminates in the party of the century, as the characters realize that no matter what happens, their lives will never be the same.
One of my favorite parts of We All Looked Up was Wallach’s writing. He knows how to depict teenagers in a very honest way. When Andy learns about Ardor, his first reaction is to vow to have sex with the completely off-limits Eliza before he dies. Many of the characters seem to turn to alcohol, drugs or sex in order to deal with their fears, but luckily not all of them. Peter in particular suddenly wants to volunteer his time, helping at a restaurant called Friendly Forks that helps rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics.
Anita was my favorite character and the one with the most depth. When Ardor appears, she decides life’s too short to do what her parents want her to do—go to Princeton—and so she runs away from home and holes up with Andy. I felt so sorry for poor Anita, who has an amazing musical gift, and yet her parents refuse to acknowledge it. They were my least favorite characters, and I found their attitude about African-Americans very odd, especially since they are African-American. Anita’s father sees Peter as perfect dating material for Anita:
He looked the part too—tall, attractive, and as white as the day was long (not that her parents were self-hating or anything, just that they associated white values with material success, while they seemed to suspect most black kids of being, at worst, drug dealers and, at best, freeloading bohemians.)
I cheered when Anita climbed out her window one night and never came back!
I loved the way Wallach wove the characters’ stories together. Little by little, they begin to interact with each other more and more, until all their lives are entangled in one way or another.
A few things didn’t work for me, however. A slow middle section turned very depressing, as the characters begin to think about death. It seemed at times all they did was sit around and wonder about whether these might be their last days or not, instead of trying to use those last moments wisely. (But then again, these are kids we’re talking about. Using time wisely isn’t really their strong suit!)
I was also startled by the oddly violent turn the story takes near the end, violence that felt out of character with the rest of the book. Society starts to collapse after the news of the asteroid is announced, and it felt like Wallach took the easy way out and used a tried-and-true apocalypse scenario where people devolve into criminals, and police brutality and murder fill the streets of Seattle.
After some shocking scenes, the author brings his story back around to what it should have been all along: a meditative look at how people make choices when those choices may soon be taken away from them. The ending was exactly as I envisioned it would be, and if it weren’t for the violence at the end, this might have been a five-star book for me. Even with my reservations, I did love this story! Highly recommended.
On a side note, Tommy Wallach is also a musician and he’s written an album to go along with the book, which I find very cool. Check out his website for more information.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy! Quotes above were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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