Thank you to SS BYR, Edelweiss, and TUAFBC Blog Tours for the review copy! Having received one did not affect my views of the novel.
You know how YA novels are just so pure? Pure, in the sense that, every single thing is EVERYTHING? Teens are unabashedly unapologetic about what they want and think and they just live in the now. They don’t create problems and believe that it’s complicated (when it’s not) like most adults do. But put in Ardor to the equation, an asteroid that could potentially wipe out Earth, and you get an even more heightened version of this. Now, every single thing is REALLY everything. Everything is a countdown. That’s what happens in We All Looked Up, life fast-forwarded and heightened told by our band of misfits.
We All Looked Up is told in the third-person perspectives of four high school students from vastly different social cliques: Peter (the jock), Eliza (the photographer), Andy (the stoner), and Anita (the overachiever). The first four chapters were dedicated to introducing these characters and I loved how Tommy Wallach COMPLETELY made us understand each one of them in just those four chapters. I could trace the roots of their personality, their fears, what keeps them awake at night, as if I’ve known these teens for a long time. Because Tommy Wallach gifted each of them with universal themes, problems, and thoughts that every person had thought of at least once in their life. It makes every single character someone you can relate to and easy people to root for. Because YOU see YOURSELF in each of them. I took a sentence from each of the four chapters to show you a preview of our characters and how they were faring when we first get to know them.
Peter: “How do you know if you’re choosing wrong?”
Eliza: “Things were never so bad that they couldn’t get worse.”
Andy: “Today was just another shit day in a life that sometimes felt like a factory specializing in the construction of shit days.”
Anita: “If she could eradicate the hope, she could eradicate the sadness.“
Peter mostly coasted through high school unscathed, but with his senior year ending, questions just keep bubbling up. Is Stanford and football the right path? Or is he gonna look back on his life when he’s on his deathbed regretting spending his whole life playing a game? Eliza’s mother took off and left her with her dad, who’s given a year to live by the doctors after his diagnosis of cancer. School isn’t good as she’s known as the school slut. Andy’s parents don’t care about him and everything bores him. Is there anything that matters? Is anyone ever gonna love him? Anita is treated by his father like she’s an investment, not his daughter. She’s smothered and she doesn’t feel loved. Her parents are also crushing her dream of being a singer and singing is all she ever wanted to do.
These characters are just rife with conflict and when their orbits get entangled together, forcing them to interact with one another, we get our story. Some people tagged this book as dystopia on Goodreads and while bombings, lootings, and killings were happening because it’s the end of the world and no one cares anymore, I’d still consider this a contemporary novel. In fact, it’s a bit slice-of-life in format, in which we see our characters day-to-day as the end of the world as we know it comes. With the apocalypse in their midst, everything becomes special (or not special), and WALU talks about every single issue it could squeeze into its length. Diversity, parental love, expectations, reality, violence, death, life, existence, legacy, love, body image, slut-shaming, creativity, adults-don’t-have-it-together, envy, EVERYTHING. With everything in fast-forward and heightened, I loved how full of musings and questions to ponder this book is. Everything is so existential and I just loved every single moment of it.
Our characters also grew by the end of the novel and honestly, I cried with this book. It was bittersweet, with both doom and hope competing, but it all ended up making me feel peaceful. Which I guess is what you feel when you’re going to die and you can’t do anything about it and you just accepted it. It’s peaceful and there’s no place for regrets. That’s how I felt after I read this book. It just struck a chord so much that I couldn’t deal.
Let’s get to the writing. I now proclaim that I will read novels written by musicians. I think they just tap into something just so much deeper and it resonates with me. Cristina Moracho’s Althea & Oliver, David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, and now this. We All Looked Up is so beautifully written that I highlighted so many passages. Descriptions I never encountered before but were SO right and apt and on point that I don’t know why I haven’t thought of them before in that way. (Answer: I’m not a writer.) In fact, I KNEW I’d love this book right from the first chapter when it said:
“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 little 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.”
This book just GETS me. This book made me all introspective. Everything was worth gushing over. If that’s how you define the best books, then We All Looked Up is certainly one of them. It felt like I was part of Tommy Wallach’s karass, along with all the people who loved this novel, that we’re all linked in a cosmically significant manner, even if there are no superficial connections. I felt like I was understood, that my self-awareness was normal and it was fine and dandy to think about things.
I also gave plenty of bonus points too because once again, I felt like Tommy just KNOWS me. The book had I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire by The Ink Spots. Tommy had a companion album to it too, which was PERFECT for the book. (Obviously.) While reading, it felt like, god, this is my crowd. Peter, Eliza, Andy, and Anita, they’re all me (and probably you) and I think that’s what Tommy wanted to achieve.
I loved The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil Ostrovski for all its philosophical musings and with everything bursting into flames in a couple of weeks, our characters in We All Looked Up are all in their own spirals of thoughts and questions. I sound so pretentious right now but philosophy in YA is just MY cup of tea. Existentialism and self-awareness and doubt are not for adults and literary fiction only. It’s for everyone. In fact, similar to Althea & Oliver, We All Looked Up read like literary fiction, which just coincidentally had teenage characters. I want Althea & Oliver, The Paradox of Vertical Flight, and We All Looked Up to have babies.
We All Looked Up is thought-provoking and is the novel I wish I read back in high school (or even in college). It’s fucking brilliant. If the world ended today, I’m glad it ended with me having read this gem.
Tommy Wallach is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. His first novel, We All Looked Up, will be published by Simon and Schuster in April 2015. His work has appeared in many nice magazines, such as McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Wired. He has released an EP with Decca Records, and will be independently putting out an LP in Spring 2014. He also makes music videos, including one that was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum. You should buy him dinner.