Author: Alice Oseman
Published Feb. 25 2016 by HarperCollins
Genre: YA contemporary; lgbt+
Date finished: April 11 2018
Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying.
Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As.
You probably think that they are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and she is a girl.
They don’t. They make a podcast.
In a world determined to shut them up, knock them down, and set them on a cookie cutter life path, Frances and Aled struggle to find their voices over the course of one life-changing year. Will they have the courage to show everyone who they really are? Or will they be met with radio silence?
My thoughts (spoiler free)
So this book has been out for a little over two years now.
Which means I’ve spend two years – TWO YEARS – just going around, living my life, while this books exists in the world and I wasn’t reading it.
What was I doing in all that time that was more important than this book???
This felt like exactly the book that I needed in my life. It was the book I needed when I was in high school, and it’s exactly the book I need now in college. I think I went through every emotion that a human being can in the span of 400 pages, and if there was a rating higher than five stars, I would give it without hesitation.
So this review is going to get a little gushy and emotional. Just to warn you.
“And I’m platonically in love with you.”
“That was literally the boy-girl version of ‘no-homo,’ but I appreciate the sentiment.”
Frances Janvier, the main character and narrator, is a seventeen year old bisexual, biracial, British-Ethiopian study machine who has spent much of her life aiming for the goal of going to Cambridge. At school, she’s head girl and always the top of her class, but at home she wears weirdly patterned leggings and draws fanart for her favorite podcast, Universe City. As such, she feels like she has two different selves that nobody really knows.
I . . . really didn’t expect to relate so hard to Frances. She’s so focused on studying and doing well in school that she often doesn’t let herself enjoy anything else, and she places much of her self-worth on her grades and test scores. At one point she says something about how she doesn’t think she’s good at anything except school and . . . wow. That hit me. That was me in high school, and to an extent it’s me now in college. My attitude has always been “work hard now and it’ll all pay off and someday you’ll get to enjoy it,” but eventually the someday is going to be now and I’m going to have to figure out who I am outside of school and grades and classes, just like Frances.
And through this all, she feels like there’s this other side of her that nobody sees – the side that’s obsessed with an obscure little podcast and basically has zero chill. Which, again: me. There’s something so powerful about seeing a character that you relate to on such a deeply personal level, which makes everything that Frances goes through feel so much more important.
Um, okay, long personal rant over, let’s talk about some of the other characters.
Aled Last is the shy, brilliant, anxious creator of Universe City, Frances’ favorite podcast. Like her, he feels alone in a lot of ways, like he can’t show parts of himself to the rest of the world, like he doesn’t have anyone to rely on. Aled is such a fascinating and complex character. He contradicts himself – he can be both selfish and kind, both closed off and affectionate. Figuring him out was one of the joys of this novel. And his character growth throughout was incredible to watch.
I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between Frances and Aled, because it was one of the driving forces of the novel and one of my favorite things about it. Specifically, the fact that the relationship doesn’t turn romantic. At all. There’s a point where Frances addresses the reader and says: “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say— We don’t.”
Do you know how rare it is to see a male-female friendship as complex and important as this one in a YA novel that doesn’t even have hints of romantic tension? And yet I was so invested in their relationship! I loved that they clicked immediately and helped each other and loved each other, and it gave me so many warm fuzzy feelings. And even though it was never romantic, Frances and Aled’s relationship wasn’t downplayed at all; both of them are incredibly important in each other’s lives. I don’t know how Alice Oseman did it so perfectly, but she did.
This books has some other really incredible characters as well. Like Daniel Jun, Aled’s lifelong friend and the head boy at Frances’ school. I really didn’t expect him to be such an important and interesting character – he turned out to be much more three-dimensional than I thought!
Another character of note is Frances’ mom, who doesn’t play a huge role in the plot but is present throughout. In a world of YA novels with disappearing parent syndrome, I really appreciated how Frances’ mom was a constant presence in her life and one of the few people that knows the fandom side of her (even if she doesn’t really understand it). Though she isn’t a hugely significant character, it was nice to have a parent who’s supportive of her child and actually plays a role in her life.
Okay, so there’s a lot that happens in the course of these 400 pages. It covers the span of a whole year, but it never feels rushed or skips all over the place in time. In fact, I thought the pacing was spot on. The various revelations and plot twists that drive it forward are placed in just a way that doesn’t rush but makes it impossible to put the book down. Some of the scenes are underlaid with this subtle sense of foreboding because you know something’s going to go wrong, and I think it’s brilliantly done.
I also love how online/fandom culture is portrayed and how that’s used as a plot device. It’s always a bit iffy going into a book about fandom because it can be so easily misrepresented, but this book captured it accurately (at least based on my own experience). It probably helps that Alice Oseman is so young (she’s only three years older than me!) and an online content creator (I read her webcomic Heartstopper in one sitting this weekend and it’s adorable), so she’s able to accurately portray how young people act and interact on the internet.
And I loved the messages going through this book – they’re not something I really see talked about in novels or even in real life a lot of the time. The pressures put on young people to follow a certain path and make major life decisions early on can be so intense and limiting, and it feels important that these things are talked about. There are more paths available than the “go to school, get good grades, get a job based on that” route, and I’m happy that this novel showed that so clearly.
The writing was excellent! I honestly don’t have any complaints (which is rare because I can be picky). It felt like the voice belonged clearly to Frances, and it was interesting to compare her internal monologue to the things she says out loud – it really highlighted the whole thing about her having two separate identities. There were moments that were laugh-out-loud funny to me, and moments that captured a feeling or moment so poignantly that it made me a little teary.
I already mentioned the portrayal of online life, but I also appreciated how accurately she portrayed the way people talk online. It was accurate and funny and didn’t feel awkward or stilted. It felt like real teenagers.
Yeah, so I loved this book. In case that wasn’t obvious.
It was a well-written, diverse YA contemporary with rounded characters that didn’t rely on romance or overblown drama to be interesting and important. And really, this book felt important. It felt like something that I needed in my life, to validate my own self-doubt and insecurities. Frances as a character meant so much to me.
Not only that, but this book was genuinely entertaining and interesting and funny. I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I cursed the heavens in frustration. The relationships were beautiful and complicated. The writing was phenomenal. It was truly a wonderful and unique book.
So, uh, time to go read everything else Alice Oseman has ever written, I guess.
“I wonder – if nobody is listening to my voice, am I making any sound at all?”