Before the asteroid we let ourselves be defined by labels:
The athlete, the outcast, the slacker, the overachiever.
But then we all looked up and everything changed.
They said it would be here in two months. That gave us two months to leave our labels behind. Two months to become something bigger than what we’d been, something that would last even after the end.
Two months to really live.
I don’t specifically remember my thoughts before beginning And We All Looked Up, but it probably had something to do with praying. Praying to the YA books gods to let it be just as amazing as the indie-esque cover, let it be the answer to the Breakfast Club tragedy that was Infinite In Between, let it be a great character case study and contain beautiful prose as well, let it have feeling and relatability and emotion. I’ve been disappointed by a number of books like this, who claim to divert from the cliches and tropes, yet do anything but that. It’s a difficult concept to uphold actually, but I’m glad And We All Looked Up somehow managed to do well with it whilst maintaining its own uniqueness. It’s not perfect, and I’m not surprised. There are a few characters that need more exploration, and a few topics that were left hanging, but I was left with a hollowed-out, bittersweet feeling towards the end, and those are the best feelings (even if I feel like shit simultaneously).
And We All Looked Up follows four high school seniors, who are famously defined by their labels. Peter, the athlete and all around good-guy, Andy, the slacker and kind of a gang-banger (he just hangs out with the wrong crowd), Anita, the super-smart nerd and overachiever, and Eliza, the outcast who’s infamous for her promiscuity. They’ve never had access to changing anything about their lives, but their inner desires and dreams call for them after an asteroid is scheduled to hit in only 2 months. From there, the foursome plan to break out of their shell and truly chase their dreams before they don’t have a chance anymore. Eliza creates a blog showcasing her photography, Anita runs away from home to sing her heart out, Andy begins his quest of getting laid (by Eliza, specifically), and Peter decides to find and embrace what truly makes him happy. As these labels are being shed, the crew finally learns to accept the qualities of themselves they hated, the qualities they can change, and the qualities that make them who they are.
There’s a number of themes infused into this unassuming book, and I’m sure one can tell that from the minimalist cover and synopsis. Peer pressure, stereotyping, fitting a label, and self-acceptance take center stage among a list of other themes that are small, but important. I would say its themes often get jumbled up and the overall organization of the novel is messy, and I’m sure it was meant to be that way. Life and its messages being thrown at you is absolute chaos and difficult to deal with, and the book summarized that aspect pretty well through its cluttered layout. I am very iffy on this though. The book takes place in a series of settings which each reflect the main characters’ characteristics and environment they grew up in. In this specific novel, the most explored area would be the rough, dangerous lives that Andy and his screwed up friends live, so a lot of gangs and street violence was shown throughout. This environment was new to me, it’s usually not as explored in typical contemporary novels and I applaud the author for showing a perspective we usually don’t see. But, Andy’s environment was far too abundant throughout this book, and there wasn’t a great balance between this aspect and the lives that the rest of the characters lead. Andy’s life was easily the most interesting, but the disorganization of it just lead to a bunch of pointless, nonsensical actions that were placed in there for drama. I’m sure there was some symbolism behind it but whatever it was, it could have been said more clearly.
The characters were surprisingly fleshed-out, and I say surprisingly because books like these usually promise great characters but hardly deliver. Thankfully, this one delivered well if not spectacularly. I have love-hate relationships with most of these characters, which is frustrating in a good way since it solidified them as realistic, but also irritates the shit out of me. Perhaps I want a character that I just adore full-out with no expectations of anything, one I can fully like but I do appreciate the honesty and rawness incorporated into these characters. There were many times in which their actions were flat-out grating, but they do grow and redeem themselves toward the end. I think many people will be inclined to dismiss the foursome and every other young adult in the novel as self-centered, angsty teenagers who are consistently horny. Those things might be true, but there is so much more beneath the surface of these kids, and how all their problems inevitably surface after the big announcement, as well as their struggle to deal with everything they haven’t accomplished, is a brutal thought that was undeniably well-written. Yes, some of their actions can be off-putting, but the chaos and frustration is so well done, I just can’t seem to hate it completely.
I actually loved the foursome, some more than others, but they all are well-written characters in their own right. Anita struggles with pleasing her strict parents and living up to the expectations they’ve put on her, while longing for the freedom to do what she truly loves: sing. I loved her matter-of-fact responses and slight humor she adds to the difficult situations, and her vulnerability was shown well too. Eliza really happened to surprise me as well, I honestly thought she was over hyped at first and while I still think she is, a lot of her struggle is quite sad yet strangely satisfying. Many people in this book treat her like a precious object to be acquired, which can be annoying, but there is actually so much backstory and pain underneath her standoffish cover that has to with what she is infamously known for: her sex life. This character could have gone incredibly wrong, but Eliza is pretty great. Andy is probably my favorite main character, and he didn’t exactly start out that way. I didn’t expect much from him initially because his backstory seemed to be the most dense at first, but boy, that changed. His longing to be wanted, and his desire yet disgust toward blending into the dangerous environment surrounding him, along with his volatile best friend, Bobo, was so perfectly exemplified. There is so much struggle that goes on within him, from deciding what he truly wants at this ending period to discovering the person he truly is, all of it is in fact effortlessly done. The only character I disliked was Peter, who always seemed to be apart from the rest of the group. This was clearly done on purpose (considering the fate of his character), but his character didn’t have a clear direction at all.
Overall, I would definitely recommend And We Looked Up to those looking for an ambitious emotional adventure that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. I’m surprised Tommy Wallach isn’t more popular, and even more surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would make a pretty good teen indie film, you know, those ones that premiere at Sundance and such. Hopefully it happens soon! 🙂