I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James, so I will not quote it, just comment in general.
I have to say, I liked this book more than I was expecting. It has a rather interesting premise that reminded me, at first glance, of a young adult version of Andy Weir’s The Martian. However, as I read, it came to remind me more of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (which is in fact intentional on the author’s part, as she quotes it at the beginning of the novel).
The protagonist, Romy Silvers, was raised on a spaceship and for the last five years has been alone after her parents died in a traumatic event she is still haunted by. Due to her isolation and unconventional life thus far, she is understandably quite naïve about many things. This can verge on annoying for the reader, as her knowledge of earth is based almost solely on tv shows, books, and out-of-date news. Furthermore, her experiences have traumatized her badly. Her coping mechanisms are often rather childlike or maladaptive, which makes for a rather interesting characterization. However, she is also quite intelligent — her education was conducted by two astronauts, and she receives information from NASA itself, after all. This sixteen-year-old knows more astrophysics and calculus than most people! She can solve problems well, evident from the fact that she has manned an entire spaceship for five years, mostly on her own with only limited communication with NASA. Her intelligence is undeniable, but at the same time James constantly reminds us that there is also so much she does not know, and so much she cannot do. At the end of the day, she is just a sheltered, rather broken child.
Her life takes a turn when she receives the news that another ship is setting off to join her on her mission to scope out possible secondary homes for the human race. She is relieved, naturally, and when the messages from the other ship’s commander, a boy just called J, the story shifts to something like a typical YA romance (sans trite love triangle, at least, which is a blessing).
However, this book was much more of a psychological thriller than I imagined. As Romy and J’s relationship progresses, the audience is encouraged to question things — what such pervasive isolation can do to a person’s psyche, namely, but also about the plot itself and what really happened to the other passengers on Romy’s spaceship. Later events make us question pretty much everything we know, and the overall tone is quite suspenseful and dark. James has a strong narrative voice, conveying Romy’s fear, affection for J, and confusion about what is happening quite well. Sometimes Romy’s breakdowns can seem a bit over the top, but considering what a lonely life she has led, along with the trauma and continued pressure she has to cope with, I think we can forgive her. How well does any sixteen-year-old handle anything, after all? (No offense to sixteen-year-olds.)
I’m putting aside the plot and characters for a moment, because a couple of aspects of this book bothered me. For a good portion of the first half of the book (I admit I might have read something wrong or missed something), I was confused about how Romy and J’s communications worked. Due to… space travel and physics, I guess… J can message Romy, but her replies do not appear to him for at least months. Apparently this has to do with the fact that both ships are light years apart and traveling at different speeds, but it was not described very well. Also, sometimes the timeline was unclear. I was not sure for a while how old Romy was, how long she had been alone, at what age she was when her parents died, etc., likely due to the complexities of time when traveling like she is. It made for a slightly frustrating read at times especially at the beginning, but eventually I got answers. I feel that perhaps James, who has a background in science, simply had trouble explaining the concepts in the form of a fiction, especially in this, her first novel. Her ideas, characters, and pacing is good, but her inexperience with novels reveals itself in these aspects.
In the end, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was a suspenseful, entertaining, better-than-expected little novel. The second half was definitely stronger than the first, but the entire book did keep my interest. The plot twists and turns in the second half were perhaps not the most unexpected plot twists in the history of fiction-writing, but they were well set up and revealed. I also rooted for Romy and lauded the writing generally.
Overall rating: about 8/10