***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a fun, romantic "sci-fi-lite" novel, worth reading mostly for the funny heroine, not for any deep underlying themes of tolerance (though they're somewhat present), and be prepared to accept a fairly implausible premise.
The heroine. This is the part I enjoyed the most about Alienated. Cara is hilarious. Truly, I snorted through my nose several times--a high compliment because that rarely happens when I read. And Cara stays true to that personality throughout. Landers keeps the edge on her, never compromising her personality. Even as Cara's feelings grow for Aelyx, she stays sassy and irreverent, with a core of warmth that's appealing. We're supposed to assume Cara is bright (after all, she was chosen to be the exchange host because of her grades) but we don't see much studying. She's competitive as all getout, though, which is so refreshing in a female character. She doesn’t even forget—after one of the hottest makeout scenes I’ve read (but still a meaningful one!)—to take Aelyx’s pulse in order to win a bet. A lot of books claim to have witty heroines, but this is one of the few really acerbic ones I’ve met. And I’m pretty sure there are allusions to Elizabeth Bennet in here. (Aelyx calls her “fairly tolerable” and later he asks himself whether he’d really once considered her family to be “ill-mannered and inferior.”)
The premise. Absurd, but I'm sure teens will roll with it. Cara and her family have been chosen to host a teenager from the planet L'eihr, as part of a cross-cultural exchange to promote goodwill. The people of L'eihr have DNA almost identical to our own--and as I recall there's some discussion about how they may have colonized our planet. They're much more advanced, technologically, than we are--witness their light-speed travel--but they've bred emotions out in favor of logic, very much like the Vulcans in Star Trek. In exchange for receiving medical advances from the aliens (for instance, Cara's mom's cancer was cured using a gift of technology), humans will eventually introduce some genetic diversity to the L'eihrans. Aelyx and his younger-generation cohort are not enthusiastic about this program, devised by the elders. They like the system of raising children as test-tube babies, and having an appropriate partner betrothed to them. On their home planet (which is neutral in shades, quiet, with bland food), the three exchange teens formed a pact to sabotage the program, by introducing a plant in their respective host cities (including Paris and Beijing) that will kill all plant life and crops within a certain radius. They'll uproot the plant and reverse its effects in time to prevent permanent damage, but they hope humans will see the connection, become resentful, and stop the exchange themselves. Even without this sabotage, though, there's a loud group of humans (HALO, or "humans against L'eihr occupation") who fear and hate the aliens, and want them off earth.
While he's out poisoning the earth, Aelyx stumbles on a more serious threat to the planet: a fast-spreading algae that will destroy the water supply. There's something having to do with nanotechnology here that I've forgotten, but the author claims this part of the science is real.
What's absurd is the notion that teens would be chosen to effect a cross-cultural exchange, rather than adults, and that it would be done via high schools and random homes of ordinary people. But if you're a teen reader, that will seem fun to you, I'm sure. Even more ridiculously, Cara is whisked away to L'eihr with Aelyx while escaping from the townspeople with (metaphorical) pitchforks, and somehow she becomes the mouthpiece for all of humanity; her daunting task is to persuade the leaders of L'eihr to address the eco-disaster that's about to happen on earth. Seriously, the debate-team skills of a seventeen-year-old are all we have to save us from destruction via rampant algae. But in the end I was able to accept that this is not a serious piece of literature, and embrace the silly.
Missed themes. There's a lot of possibility here for themes of tolerance, and commentaries on immigration and bigotry. The author's most successful foray into the theme of tolerance is the way she shows Aelyx warm to his host family, a bit in the manner of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The more overt thread of tolerance (or rather intolerance) depicted by the narrow-minded mob (and unusually violent teen "junior HALO" members) is not nuanced enough to be anything but a caricature of prejudice, though.
In sum. It's fun to watch Cara and Aelyx's relationship develop, and to see the generous ways in which Cara tries to make Aelyx feel welcome and comfortable, even while she's adjusting to having him invade her private space. In that way it was very much like real foreign exchanges that I've seen and experienced. It was also nice to see Aelyx question his sabotage plot as he becomes more acquainted with the Sweeney family, and becomes fond of Cara. In this sense, the smaller examples of tolerance (between the characters we care about) become much more meaningful than the broader, mindless intolerance of the HALO mob, which is not handled as deftly by Landers. A nice, "lite" read, perfectly adequate for the summer.
And there is that one wonderful makeout/sh'ellam scene.
Post script. Am I the only one who thought the L'eihr language seemed like transliterated fake Hebrew? And at the end of the second book, will cancer still be cured on earth? If so, something about that outcome will make the series feel more fantastical than time-travel to distant solar systems.
Characters to remember (in case I read the sequel): Cara, Aelyx, Syrine (exchange student in France), Eron (exchange student in China who adjust quickly to human life but is killed), Elle (Aelyx’s biological sister), Tori (best friend who winds up dating Cara's ex-boyfriend), Troy (Cara's brother, already on L'eihr).