Author: Robin Talley
Published: expected January 31 2017
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Fifteen-year-old Aki Hunter knows she’s bisexual, but up until now she's only dated guys—and her best friend, Lori, is the only person she’s out to. When she and Lori set off on a four-week youth-group mission trip in a small Mexican town, it never crosses Aki's mind that there might be anyone in the group she’d be interested in dating. But that all goes out the window when Aki meets Christa.
Robin Talley's latest young adult novel is also her lightest in tone, but that doesn't mean Our Own Private Universe is short on emotion or that it doesn't have important things to say in its all-too-short three hundred pages. Like before with her debut Lies We Tell Ourselves, Talley tackles multiple hot button issues with depth, care, and empathy. She does so within a contemporary novel that spans only the length of a high school summer but this is a story that rarely feels rushed or superficial in handling heavier elements. Themes that touch on culturally significant topics like feminism, faith, immigration, civil rights, and gay marriage are central to both the plot and to the development of the main character Aki.
The secondary characters that make up Aki's family and friends are a multifaceted, diverse, and inclusive bunch. They're interesting in their own right and in how they interact with each other. Aki's life is rich with culture and family and faith; her brother Drew is a key figure in her plotlines, as is her Dad. Against a backdrop of emerging adulthood and exploring sexuality, Aki learns what it means to be herself; what she wants for herself in life and also what she is willing to fight for. She's presented as a whole teenage girl; three-dimensional in all her vices and virtues. One of my favorite things about Talley as an author is that she allows a lot of humanity for her teen girl characters; they aren't perfect and they also aren't expected to be. Aki is a likeable character, yes, but she's also far more than that. She's complicated and makes mistakes but also grows and changes and matures over the course of Our Own Private Universe.
Young adult contemporary is at its best as a genre when its authors don't shy away from tackling controversial subjects, like Talley has unflinchingly done since she came on the scene only three years ago. Our Private Universe is many things, but the normalcy with which Aki's sexuality and sexual curiosity is treated is sadly rare to see for LGBT characters. The romance between Christa and Aki is uncertain and shippy and complicated and involved, but above all, it is realistic without being depressing. Our Own Private Universe is a smart, timely book, but it's not preachy and it doesn't talk down to its intended audience when it comes to any aspect of Aki's journey of self-discovery. Talley crafts an excellent story with developed characters in a short amount of time, but she also includes the relevant information about safe sex and figuring out sexuality while doing so.
Culturally relevant while still being a fun and fresh YA contemporary, Our Own Private Universe is another memorable and engaging read from Robin Talley. The characters are the high point of the story, but there's little to dislike about this one. The interracial queer romance is sadly notable for its lack of read-a-likes and is hopefully a harbinger to come of more racially and sexually diverse stories.