I’ve been sitting on this review for months, ever since I
stole borrowed the ARC from a friend who wasn’t quite as enthused about the idea of a quiet YA apocalypse as I was. I don’t know what it is about the human-race-facing-their-imminent-demise premise that I find so fascinating — maybe it’s spending my formative years in the ’90s when every other movie was about one form or another of Armageddon, including one (which I unabashedly love so don’t even attempt to speak ill of it) actually titled Armageddon — but no matter the reason, all I knew is when I read the blurb of We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Now, make no mistake, this book is way less Armageddon and way more Melancholia. There is no rag-tag group of rugged miscreants tasked with saving the world, no last-ditch far-fetched government plan that unites the nations, and definitely no curmudgeonly-but-secretly-heroic mission leader willing to lay it all on the line for the greater good.
Still, if you’d like to read this review imagining Aerosmith playing softly in the background — or actually playing Aerosmith softly in the background — that is fine.
The Plot (from Goodreads):
Four high school seniors put their hopes, hearts, and humanity on the line as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth in this contemporary novel.
They always say that high school is the best time of your life.
Peter, the star basketball player at his school, is worried “they” might actually be right. Meanwhile Eliza can’t wait to escape Seattle—and her reputation—and perfect-on-paper Anita wonders if admission to Princeton is worth the price of abandoning her real dreams. Andy, for his part, doesn’t understand all the fuss about college and career—the future can wait.
Or can it? Because it turns out the future is hurtling through space with the potential to wipe out life on Earth. As these four seniors—along with the rest of the planet—wait to see what damage an asteroid will cause, they must abandon all thoughts of the future and decide how they’re going to spend what remains of the present.
I really love a well-executed multiple-point-of-view book, but they’re hard to execute well. I’ve read a lot of multiple POV books by authors I otherwise enjoyed where the attempt to jump from one head to another kind of fell flat. Either one POV resonates more than the other(s), or they all sound kind of the same, or any number of other reasons.
Which is why this book stood out so much.
Even in third person, each of WE ALL LOOKED UP’s four narrators had their own unique voice, and each was a fully developed character, with strengths and flaws and moments of greatness mixed with moments of what-could-you-possibly-have-been-thinking. From Andy’s boneheaded pursuit of Eliza, to Anita’s ill-advised self-emancipation, to Eliza’s frustration over her undeserved reputation and Peter’s struggle between who he’s always been and who he wants to be, they all have honest and daunting uphill battles to fight in the face of their possibly impending doom.
The relationships start shallow, but become interwoven, intricate, and challenging. At the opening of the story, none of the four main characters know each other outside of a peripheral acquaintance, but as the meteor strips away the social boundaries keeping them apart, they come together in interesting and unexpected ways. They all begin the book viewing each other as objects and stereotypes — some more than others, but none are immune — until they don’t. Every one of them starts out as some version of “problematic” — again, some more than others — which, to me, read very true to where a lot of teens (and adults) are, drifting through life not really thinking about how their views and choices affect others until they have to.
I found it fascinating how the end-of-the-world scenario shoved them into those “until they have to” situations, and did it for each of them in different ways. How each faced the reality that they might all be dead in a couple months varied greatly — Do you try to become a better person? Do the thing you’ve always been afraid to do? Throw caution to the wind? — and told me a lot about each character and the lives they’d lived up to that point. By the end of the book, you may not necessarily be rooting for all four characters — some of them make some terrible choices with awful consequences — but I felt I understood them all better, and that they finally understood each other. Which, to me, felt like the point of their winding journeys.
The other aspect of this book I really loved was the glimpse into how society as a whole might handle an impending cataclysm. Since the approach of the meteor takes several months, and since they never know definitively whether its going to hit the earth or not, the world doesn’t instantly descend into chaos. Life goes on as normal — or normal-ish — for a while after the maybe-apocalypse is announced. But the closer the meteor gets, the more things break down. Kids stop attending school, people in unfulfilling jobs stop going to work, prices for basic goods and services skyrocket, rules and laws carry less and less weight until they’re eventually meaningless. The global shift in priorities starts subtle, then grows more and more pronounced throughout the book, until you can’t help but feel the slide. I’m not saying this is necessarily a more or less realistic view of what might happen than in other works of fiction where society bands together to work for the good of all; it’s just different. And for me, it was fascinating and kept the wheels in my brain turning for days after I finished the book.
I can’t speak to the science of the story. Physicists, I don’t know how realistic it is that NASA wouldn’t be able to predict whether or not a giant meteor will or will not hit us until the moment of impact. All I ask of science fiction (and this is extremely light science fiction, and even that categorization may be pushing it) is that it present its case in a way that allows me to buy into its premise for the duration of the book, and doesn’t throw anything at me that is so obviously far-fetched that it pulls me out of the story. And for me, WE ALL LOOKED UP delivered on that front.
Boiled down to its bones, this book is not an apocalypse story, but a character and relationship study under extraordinary circumstances. Its overall tone is quiet and contemplative, but there are definite moments of adrenaline and action and shock. It’s a weird one to peg down, because on one hand it has some definite science fiction aspects, but on the other hand it reads much more like a contemporary. I’d say that if you can swallow the maybe-end-of-the-world premise, and you enjoy well-drawn, far-from-perfect characters in scenarios that keep you thinking long after turning the final page, then you should try WE ALL LOOKED UP.