The Young World by Chris Weitz
*I received this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy while attending Book Expo America in New York in May. It has since become available in print (July 29th, 2014).
I’m not sure where to start this post. Let’s just say I was not altogether impressed.
The premise of The Young World is that some kind of virus (“the Sickness”) was released and killed off all the adults and young children in the world. Basically those left are kids/teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 or so. And they’re not safe, because the virus is held at bay in their system by hormones that show up around age 12 and fade around age 18, so everyone will eventually die by becoming an adult. This story takes place in New York City, focusing on a bunch of the teenagers who are living in make-shift communities, basically just surviving, about 2 years after “What Happened”.
Our main group of teens have made Washington Square their home, and after his older brother (and leader of the group) Washington turns 18 and immediately succumbs to “the Sickness” and dies, Jefferson is chosen to take his place as leader. Jefferson’s brainiac friend (aptly choosing the new name Brainbox for himself) says he found an article abstract in the nearby library that may shed light on “What Happened” and possibly lead to a cure. Of course, this means the full article needs to be found, so Jefferson rounds up a group of five people (himself, Brainbox, Donna, Peter, and SeeThrough) to make the journey to the Mid-Town library to find it.
As is expected, they find opposition from other groups of teens along the way, moving through territory that has been claimed by others. Upon reaching the library, they eventually find the whole article and Brainbox works out the location of a lab on Long Island that may be the place of origin of this virus and therefore the place where they could possibly find a cure. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t decide to make the trip, so they head off on this new adventure.
Again, they have to make their way through several other already occupied/claimed territories, finding trouble among a make-shift market that has taken over Grand Central, roam through abandoned subway tunnels, escape wild animals in Central Park, and move uptown into Harlem in search of way to Long Island.
The group they meet in Harlem agrees to take them to LI in exchange for the cure if they find it. This Harlem group has a boat, and they set out. Once there, they are all taken hostage by a drugged out group of tweens (no one over 14) and brought to the very lab they were searching for. They find the person running the lab – “The Old Man” – someone they had only heard rumors of. This man has some sort of hormone imbalance/condition that stopped him from getting the virus and also knows how it was created and why (biological warfare, clearly), and has been working on the cure. However, our Washington Square heroes have now been taken hostage and will be used as human guinea pigs to test his work. Brainbox is able to save his life in exchange for helping The Old Man with his work and within a few days they think they’ve found the cure. However, The Old Man is in no hurry to let anyone go in order to keep testing, and Brainbox is forced to trick him, kill him, and help his friends escape, because he knows something no one else does – [SPOILER] the adults are not really all dead! And a Navy chopper full of adults is making its way down to the lab, which is where we find the end of this book.
Obviously something like this had to happen, otherwise I don’t know how this was supposed to be a trilogy, but it all just seems very played out. I think it’s safe to say that dystopian novels are getting to be a dime a dozen, and they need to be extremely new and fresh in order to stand out in the over-saturated field. This novel does not do that. The plot is alright, it feels a little under developed and a little too familiar. And the writing didn’t really help.
The story is told from two points of view throughout, alternating every other chapter. These points of view are Jefferson’s and Donna’s. Jefferson’s parts were good. I liked him as a character, as a doesn’t-want-to-be leader (though this is a character that has been done time and time again, I think it still works), and as the voice of not giving up and surviving even if they’re all only going to live to be 18. Donna’s chapters, however, were tough to get through.
It was as if Donna was made up of every teenage girl stereotype Weitz could think of, and then to make things interesting, he made a point to tell us she is a feminist. Throughout Donna’s account of the events that are happening around her, we are subjected to her constantly worrying about her looks, whether or not she loves Jefferson (or Washington for a while), and the word ‘like,’ the phrase ‘or whatever,’ and tons of text abbreviation. Chris Weitz is also a screen writer, and it comes across (in a bad way) by his lack of understanding that people do not read the way they talk. Dialogue that will be read aloud to the audience is different than dialogue that the audience is delivering internally to themselves.
This screen writer mentality also comes out in the way the dialogue is presented in Donna’s sections. When characters were talking in Donna’s POV chapters, it looked like this:
Me (feeling embarrassed): “Dialogue.”
I think it was quite possibly the most annoying thing I’ve come across in a book for some time. It took me right out of the story. I would read the name as if it were the beginning of a sentence, or someone else was saying the name, and then have to regroup and tell myself that was the name of the person speaking. It would be a lot different if this were the way all the dialogue throughout the book was, but it wasn’t; this only happened every other chapter.
I could probably go on and on about Donna as a character and how she turned me off to this book. I’ll try to keep it short. She begins by addressing the reader, breaking the character/audience wall and telling us she will try to be a reliable narrator. I don’t understand; is she aware that people could be reading? Are her sections of the book a journal or something? We don’t find out, at least not in this book. Also, she isn’t in love with Jefferson until another girl shows up and gets his attention, and then she does love him (and she begins referring to this other girl by names like Sexy Mcsexerton and Tits McGhee – super feminist of her.) She was my least favorite character, and she narrates half the book. It was difficult to get through the whole thing.
Other than Donna, and the overdone feel of the dystopian world, the book was also pretty grim. There was a lot of violence; violence against animals, violence against girls (I’d say women, but the whole point is that no one is over the age of 17, which made it that much worse.) The whole thing had a very misogynistic and rapey vibe to it. I know the book is a YA and these tend to deal with more mature content and all that, but at 25 if I’m baulking at certain scenes, I can’t imagine how the 15 year olds (this book is suggested for ages 15 and up) are taking it.
I don’t want to come off like there’s nothing good about this book. The pacing was done well; as a dystopian novel the whole point is survival, and therefore you need a lot of obstacles that threaten the survival of your characters to move the story along. Chris Weitz gives us obstacle after obstacle for these characters to get through. He sets up a clear objective—get to the Long Island lab—and then he makes it really difficult for the group to get there (and he does it using the world he built and with obstacles and complications that made sense.) If you’re into dystopian stories and don’t mind if they overlap in areas of subject matter, you might like this. If you don’t mind some graphic violence, you might like this. If you don’t mind under-developed and one-dimensional characters, you might like this. I like dystopian and I don’t mind some violence, but I could not get passed Donna. Maybe if she hadn’t been a co-narrator and only showed up as a character from Jefferson’s point of view it would have worked better for me. Actually, I’m sure I would have had a much more positive reaction to this book had it been narrated entirely by Jefferson. As it is, I highly doubt I’ll be picking up the next one to see what all these not-dead adults are up to.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
*Cover art from Amazon.com