BOOK REVIEW: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
“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 is The Breakfast Club for a new generation… but where detention is replaced by an impending end of the world, and everyone is possibly going to die…
Okay, maybe not The Breakfast Club, but we do have four very different teens, thrown together by forces beyond their control. And their time together will stay with them for the rest of their lives… however long or short those lives might be.
There’s Peter: the sporty guy with jock friends and shallow girlfriend, who’s just been challenged by his teacher to make more of his life.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m having a weird day. Something a teacher said.”
“You in trouble?”
“Not like that. It’s hard to explain.”
“Here’s my trick with teachers, right? Don’t ever listen to them in the first place.”
“It’s got me this far,” he said, then popped a whole chicken finger into his mouth.
Eliza: the artsy loner type who likes taking pictures, and has been branded a slut at school. Her mother’s gone and her father is dying.
She believed photography to be the greatest of all art forms because it was simultaneously junk food and gourmet cuisine, because you could snap off dozens of pictures in a couple of hours, then spend dozens of hours perfecting just a couple of them. She loved how what began as an act of the imagination turned into a systematic series of operations, organized and ordered and clear: mixing up the processing bath, developing the negatives, choosing the best shots and expanding them, watching as the images appeared on the blank white paper as if in some kind of backward laundromat – a billowing line of clean sheets slowly developing stains, then hung up until those stains were fixed forever.
The chemo did end up slowing the growth of her dad’s tumors, but good news was a weird thing when you were dealing with a fatal illness. Instead of a few months, the doctors gave him a year. This was how you could be lucky without being lucky. This was how you could be a winner and still lose.
Andy: skater, stoner, no-hoper musician who’s been pushed out of his mother’s life by her new man.
So what if Bobo was still pissed off at him? So what if Suzie O thought he was a dick? So what if Eliza was giving it up to some loser with an Afro when Andy probably wouldn’t get laid until he was thirty? None of it really mattered. Today was just another shit day in a life that sometimes felt like a factory specializing in the construction of shit days.
And Anita: conscientious student constantly driven by her father towards a career path she doesn’t want, closet singer.
Afterward, her uncle Bobby had told her she ought to think about studying voice in college.
Anita had laughed. “I don’t think my parents would like that very much.”
“But you’d like it, wouldn’t you?”
“So do it. You can make your own decisions.”
But that was easy enough for him to say. He wasn’t Benjamin Graves’s greatest investment. And investments weren’t supposed to make their own decisions; they were just supposed to mature.
But no one could stop her from singing in the closet. In the closet, there was no distinction between dreams and reality, no need to choose one path or another. There was just the heavenly lift of the strings, the sharp shriek of the horns, the twinkle of the guitar.
They each have things going on in their lives. High-school things, real world things, things that could seriously affect the direction of their future… but then Ardor is discovered.
“Wicked, right?” Andy asked.
Eliza knew what he meant by the word; it was one of a million different synonyms for “cool”: sweet, ill, rad, dope, sick. But for some reason, she felt he had it wrong. The star seemed wicked in the original sense. Wicked like the Wicked Witch of the West. Wicked like something that wanted to hurt you.
The comet is eight miles wide at its thickest point, and if it collides with the planet it will unleash a force more powerful than one billion nuclear bombs. It’s headed right for Earth, is expected to arrive within 8 weeks, and the odds aren’t great…
“What are they saying?” Misery asked again, and there was a desperate edge to her voice that sent a shiver down Andy’s spine. “Kevin, what the fuck are they saying?”
“I was hoping to find something different,” he said, looking up from the screen. “They’re saying two-thirds.”
“Two-thirds? Like sixty-six percent?”
“So two-thirds we all live, and one-third we all die?”
Kevin hesitated, checked the screen again, then slowly shook his head. “The other way,” he said.
Everyone deals with the impending doom in their own way.
It didn’t help that her dad seemed to be taking the apocalypse in stride; she could have used him on Team Terrifying Existential Dread. That was the problem with a death-sentence cancer prognosis – the end of the world was already coming. But didn’t it bum him out a little bit that his daughter would never grow old enough to have kids or see Europe, or drink legally? Wasn’t that worth a few tears?
Sadness looked strange on Peter – too small, almost – like a sweater that reached only halfway down the forearm, that pulled up and exposed an awkward strip of midriff.
Funny, it had been the exact opposite for Andy. Without Ardor, he wouldn’t have made friends with either Anita or Eliza. Maybe the asteroid was turning the whole world upside down. The popular shall become unpopular. The freak shall inherit the Earth.
There’s not much left to do now, except wait and see what eventuates, and maybe live as much of their lives as possible in the interim weeks… because living is what it’s all about.
“But everything ends,” she said suddenly. “It does. And I don’t want to bring you down or anything, because that’s the last thing any of us need right now. But it’s still the truth. There isn’t very much I believe in. Not heaven, or hell, or that any part of us will survive if… if it happens. But I can say that, for me, it was still worth it. I mean, it was still worth being alive. I really do believe that. Thanks.”
This is an unflinching book. This is a book about our world under threat of destruction, and the things that people will do in their time of desperation. Nothing they do in those last weeks will likely save them, but neither will it leave any kind of mark on the world for future generations, at least not any kind of mark that would survive the collision.
If they die, there will be no one left to judge them, so why should people spend their last days obeying laws and being courteous to each other?
Wallach does a superb job of capturing the voices of teenagers – their concerns, hopes, and fears – and draws the reader in right from the first chapter. He also shows a level of insight towards death, grief, and rape culture that few people seem to possess.
And it wouldn’t have been that hard to let it happen. If she just lay back and went still as a corpse and thought about something else, she’d survive it. How much worse would it really be than getting plastered and sleeping with some guy she’d just met in a bar? A few numb minutes and everything would be over.
Misery lay across the bed with her head in Eliza’s lap. She had a tragic grace to her, pallid perpendicular lines for limbs and a faraway, traumatized stare. Strange to think that Bobo wouldn’t have done what he did if he hadn’t found her beautiful. Beauty always made a target of its possessor. Every other human quality was hidden easily enough – intelligence, talent, selfishness, even madness – but beauty would not be concealed.
“Do you ever wish you didn’t look the way you did?” Anita asked.
“All the time,” Misery said. “I hate the way I look.”
Anita smiled at the misunderstanding. She could remember what it was like to be sixteen – so uncomfortable in your body that sometimes it didn’t feel like your body at all. Even at eighteen, she was only just beginning to be able to look at herself in the mirror without totally freaking out.
“No, I don’t mean like that. I just meant-”
“Having to be afraid,” Eliza said.
No need to say more. No need to describe all the things you had to do to keep the eyes away. No need to discuss how hard it was to get the attention of the person you wantedattention from without being seen as desperate for everyone’s attention. No need to catalog all the walls you had to put up; not just the walls that protected you from physical danger – though there were plenty of those, too – but the walls you had to build around your heart. They said no man was an island, and Anita figured that was probably true. But women were; they had to be. And even if someone bothered to sail over and disembark, he’d soon discover that there was always a castle at the center of the island, surrounded by a deep moat, with a rickety drawbridge and archers manning the battlements and a big pot of oil poised above the gate, ready to boil alive anyone who dared to cross the threshold.
This was an engaging, observant, engrossing read, told in an easy to read, easy to love style. The characters and their struggles are all very real and very relateable, and you’ll feel everything from happiness, to grief, to understanding.
This is a story about what it means to be human, and about finding something worth holding onto in the people you’re forced together with… even if you’re just holding on until the end of the world.
I look forward to reading all of Wallach’s future works.
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