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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Learning to Swear in America

Learning to Swear in America - Katie Kennedy

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: A John Green read-alike, plus an asteroid hurtling toward earth.


The good. This book is charming and wholesome, and I'm thrilled to see a STEM kid as the hero. There's a disabled teen in a wheelchair who becomes a good friend, which is great. The prose style is good--not pretentious, not overly descriptive, just plain and pretty.


Just...not for me. I read a lot of young-adult literature, but it's very hard for me to find a YA contemporary novel that I savor, that I learn from. I read this (listened, actually) a little too dutifully, feeling distant from it the whole time. 


I feel particularly removed when a book reminds me of John Green's writing, where the characters seem more like clever, quick-witted, quirky teenage ideals than potential living people. This novel does not share the sometimes precious prose style of Mr. Green, but it has the lonely-boy main character (in this case Russian) who "suffers" from his nerdy awkwardness, it has witty dialogue at inappropriate moments, and it has the deal-killer for me: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who has very little internal life of her own and whose purpose is to cause emotional growth in the main character. Here, the girl is part of a Manic Pixie Dream Family--hippie types who celebrate their own, quirky secular holidays and welcome a wayward teenage Russian scientist into their lives as if he's family, too.


The asteroid. The premise of the book is that there is an asteroid hurtling toward earth, and Yuri is shipped off from Moscow to the U.S. to help decide on the model (and do the calculations for) the country's anti-asteroid defense, primarily because of his specialization in anti-matter. It's a risky thing for an author to write about difficult science when they're not a scientist, particularly when the situation is supposed to be grave. In this case, the author seems to think of the asteroid more as a plot device than the main conflict--which has the odd effect of making it feel unthreatening. Even the characters treat it lightly. Moreover, Yuri's work is almost exclusively mathematical, in a windowless office, which also reduces the tension. But mostly, I found myself questioning so much of the science, and then thinking, since the novel is really a contemporary and not sci-fi or fantasy, "Why do we even have that asteroid?" The very first scientific premise in Learning to Swear in America, that we can know the impact will occur precisely in Los Angeles, is already wrong. 


(In Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up, another contemporary YA novel that features the imminent destruction of the earth by an asteroid, there is no attempt at science. The conflict is thus how the characters deal with the notion of the end of the world.)


Forced immigration. Another technical detail that had me scratching my head was the idea that Yuri, a seventeen-year-old boy on loan from the Russian government, would be kidnapped by U.S. intelligence and forced to live in the U.S. for having peeked at a weapons list. It felt like another plot device, and I struggled to suspend my disbelief: would Russia willingly let one of their most valuable scientists go without a fight?


The author's hand. This is something that I'm a stickler for: I really do want to believe the premise of the book I'm reading. I don't want to see the author's hand--see her thinking about how to achieve something, see her troubleshooting in response to an editor's comments. The Nobel Prize quest felt this way to me. Actual real-life scientists know that winning the prize is a crap shoot, not a "goal." It's a lovely bonus that no one plans for or talks about, other than to speculate on names every year--they do their research because they love it, and because they couldn't imagine not doing it. So the convenient introduction of the son-of-a-party-leader who is going to steal Yuri's work (and half his Nobel Prize) felt doubly forced, to make us root for Yuri to find his way home--to make him give up something he cares deeply about in order to save Lennon. The author struggled with a problem: this is a boy who has so little "life" in Moscow that he brought a photo of his thesis advisor as his personal memento when he packed for the U.S.. So how can she motivate his desire--his need--to return? Well, she adds in the threat of his work in Moscow being stolen. That creates another problem: what about that thesis advisor, who cares enough about Yuri to defend his work? Well, that thesis advisor will be forced by powerful politicians behind the scenes to retire. And in terms of character development, I imagined Ms. Kennedy (or her editor) worrying, "What about this girl, Dovie, who seems to have limited internal life, compared with Yuri? How can she be fleshed out?" The "answer" is she's a passionate artist, and an art teacher who prefers teenage cleavage to real talent has told her to tone down her colors, which is a metaphor for toning down her dreams. Don't give up your dreams of being an artist, Dovie!


Which brings up the question: why can't the STEM main character be a girl, and the artsy character who paints rainbow fingernail polish be the boy?


The "real" plot. The asteroid and the threat of being forced to live in the U.S. are plot devices that are there to cause growth in Yuri. He's a somewhat well-adjusted guy who doesn't know he's really grappling with the following emotional problems: having given up his childhood to be a scientist; having a distant relationship with his physician mother, who is successful but busy and non-maternal; and placing all of his self-worth and the legacy of his dad into winning a Nobel Prize in Physics. So what does he really need? He needs a girl with dyed hair and glittery eyeshadow and a disabled brother to help him uncover those emotional problems, and to show him what's really important in life. 


Which brings up the question: why can't the physician mother (a female STEM character) who is successful and busy also be nurturing?


In sum. Not engrossing or illuminating. But many reasonable people have enjoyed this book. It's highly readable, and it mostly does readers no harm, except for perpetuating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.