Wednesday, March 26, 2014
ARC Review: Plus One by Elizabeth Fama
Title: Plus One
Author: Elizabeth Fama
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: April 8th, 2014
From the moment I cracked open the spine of Plus One, it felt as if Elizabeth Fama had written her sophomore novel just for me.
For the past year and a half, practically, I've been dutifully rejecting every dystopian novel that has come my way, from the older Maze Runner to the newer The 5th Wave and the unreleased Salvage. In other words, I have been mentally and not-so-mentally raging about the dystopian genre; at its lack of originality, its failure to draw forth complex characters, and at its blatant efforts to tone down political and sexual themes for a teenage audience. Needless to say, when Plus One fell into my lap, I had reached the end of my patience, determined to give up on the genre as a whole if Fama's sophomore novel - which had already received wide acclaim - failed me as well. Plus One, however, proved to be not only the novel I needed to read, but the novel I didn't even realize I wanted to read. If you've ever experienced a similar emotion - of becoming immersed inside a novel your imagination couldn't even have conjured up - then you'll know that that isn't an experience you're likely to forget. Ever.
In 1918, when the flu pandemic destroyed much of human life, our government decided to segregate humans into two groups: Night and Day. With strict curfews put in place, alongside rules, regulations, and a different type of lifestyle entirely, our society worked tirelessly to prevent the spread of the pandemic, believing that this method of split civilization would work to contain the disease. Following its success, however, the segregation remained, Smudges and Rays staying apart, yet another twisted form of the classic "separate but equal" which, as history sadly informs us, is only separate, not equal. Plus One begins with Sol, our protagonist, planning to break into a hospital in broad daylight with the intention of showing her dying grandfather the face of his great-granddaughter before he passes away. For Sol and Poppu, her grandfather, going outside during the day is a criminal offense. Ever since Sol's brother, Ciel, was switched to a Day schedule, however, Sol has seen little of her brother and even less of his family. It is Poppu's dying wish, though, that forces Sol to break the rigid rules of her society, daring into the sunlight and into the hospital where her newborn niece lies sleeping. Only, D'Arcy, a Ray apprentice whose perceptive nature immediately finds Sol suspicious, quickly derails her best-laid plans. But there are plans in motion that neither Sol nor D'Arcy can anticipate and before either of them quite know it, their lives become about so much more than a dying wish, societal rules, or even a sleeping baby.
From the beginning itself, Fama's sophomore novel stand out due to its impeccable world-building. Fama unveils the details of this world slowly, gradually, and timely. It's an extremely detailed set-up and I appreciated that Fama never skipped over the political repercussions of her world. If anything, the political motivations, gains, and corruption of Fama's society are just as palpable and integral in her world as they are in ours. While this isn't a dystopian novel (strictly speaking since it isn't futuristic, merely an alternate type of society), we do come to know of many imperfections within this society - imperfections spurned by both political drive and human nature. As a stand-alone, Plus One avoids the icky set-up of a classic dystopian trilogy in which the "big reveal" behind an imperfect society is hyped up to such an extent that by the time we discover its secrets, we are no longer impressed. Instead, Fama times her clues perfectly, dropping hints but never ruining the ultimate surprise for readers, which proves to be satisfying in a clever manner, drawing together threads from much earlier on in the novel to tie up the story as a whole. Another plus point is that the class inequalities are explored carefully, proving to be multiple shades of gray instead of the black-and-white Sol may originally think it is.
Nevertheless, those technical issues aside, the plot of Plus One is driven by Sol's love for her grandfather, Poppu. In an effort to ensure he holds his great-granddaughter before he dies, she sets out to break the law. While Fama does use sparing flashbacks to build the strength of the bond that Sol feels for her grandfather and older brother, the love within this family is palpable and ever-present, more a feeling than a combination of words, which I loved. Additionally, these flashbacks never took away from the novel, only adding to it due to the fact that they were sparse and concise. All too often it is easy to become embroiled in the past, not the present, but Fama never wanders down that path. Furthermore, Plus One continues to win points from me due to its ending. It is ever-so-slightly open, the way I like it, and I hope Fama writes a companion novel set in this same world because I'd love to know more about the political machinations of this society. (Admittedly, we are given quite a lot, but, as always, I just want MOAR.)
When it comes to the romance, however, (which its cover promises is far more prominent than it really is), Plus One faltered, ever-so-slightly. While I loved D'Arcy, the romantic interest of this novel, and found him to be a million shades of swoon, I wasn't wholly sold on the romance. Granted, there is a hefty amount of development and Sol and D'Arcy, though enticing characters on their own right, are even more explosive together. Yet, their relationship jumps very quickly from like to love once they realize a mini-plot twist. Admittedly, I could understand their excitement at this revelation, but I couldn't emotionally get behind it as I didn't feel as if their relationship exuded that level of affection. Fama writes it on the page flawlessly but as for my heart? It just couldn't take in the magnitude of feeling that Fama claimed lay between them. I also felt as if the word "love" was thrown around a little too casually here. Sol's time is short, from page one itself, because she takes it upon herself to break the law. We know she'll be serving time in jail and I feel as if the relationship between D'Arcy and Sol was rushed into love as a consequence despite the fact that it didn't feel as natural. Moreover, while I am all for sex in YA, the short sex scene in Plus One didn't serve a purpose. Once again, it felt as if D'Arcy and Sol rushed into this because their time was so limited and while I am able to understand that sentiment, I wish that their experience had some meaning. I wish it gave strength or courage or at least comfort. Instead, it felt very much like bucket-list sex. Like "I might die soon so let's just get it on now while we can" kind of sex which I wasn't a fan of.
I was fortunate enough to have Elizabeth Fama reach out to be about my issues with her portrayal of the romance in this novel and I'd like to share with you what she said:
I just wanted to say that I was happy to see you mention the "bucket-list" sex that bothered you. For me, you hit the nail on the head when you said "The relationship between D'Arcy and Sol was rushed into love" and "D'Arcy and Sol rushed into [sex] because their time was so limited."
Your discomfort is appropriate, in my opinion. The sex scene is in there for a very serious reason, and I think of it as crucial to the more meaningful theme of the book: the loss of liberty and civil rights. I wanted Sol and D'Arcy to bring a human face to the injustice, by making the reader care about them. Here are two young people who should have the simple right to get to know each other and be together, who can't be together for an arbitrary reason imposed on them by the government. And now you--the reader--have gotten to know and love them and you want them to be together, at whatever pace is comfortable for them, and doesn't it stink that this system interferes with that? Doesn't that mean we should all protect our liberties? (This sentiment that I hoped readers would feel is stated explicitly by Grady Hastings, who is quoting Clarence Darrow in his speech when he says "You can only be free if I am free.") Sol's determination to have sex with D'Arcy while she can is symbolically the crux of the book for me. Her urgency is directly related to the loss of control she feels, knowing they'll be torn apart. I think Sol and D'Arcy are the kind of kids who would have had a longer courtship if their world and their circumstance had been different. But given their situation, they didn't feel they had the luxury to choose.
For me, reading Elizabeth's words shed a LOT of light on this story. I chose to first share my original sentiments in this review because I can sense that other readers may feel this way about the love story as well - and that, as Fama has said, is a normal reaction. When forced to think beyond this bubble, though, beyond the scope of just that one sex scene or those few moments when the word "love" slipped out, I love that, in reality, this entire relationship is a statement about Fama's imaginary society. All too often, swoon is added into a novel in order to make it more appealing to audiences. For me, the fact that the romance in Plus One serves a greater purpose and does, in fact, both engage readers and hold a deeper meaning within the plot of this story, truly won me over regarding its growth arc. Often times, it takes stepping back to look beyond mere emotion to understand the magnitude of a scene, both in real-life and in literature, and I hope other readers will appreciate this aspect of Plus One as well. Needless to say, Plus One comes very highly recommended from me. If its cover hasn't already compelled you to pre-order it, then I certainly hope I will.
Once again, a huge thank you to Elizabeth Fama for taking the time to write to be about Plus One. Your words have enhanced my appreciation as a reader, thinker, and analyzer and for that, I cannot thank you enough.