Review: Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Saturday, July 9, 2016
Title: Learning to Swear in America
Author: Katie Kennedy
Genre: contemporary, apocalptic
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Published: July 5 2016
Source: ARC from publishers for review
Rating: 2/5

Brimming with humor and one-of-a-kind characters, this end-of-the world novel will grab hold of Andrew Smith and Rainbow Rowell fans.

An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. A big, bad one. Yuri, a physicist prodigy from Russia, has been called to NASA as they calculate a plan to avoid disaster. He knows how to stop the asteroid: his research in antimatter will probably win him a Nobel prize--if there's ever another Nobel prize awarded. But Yuri's 17, and having a hard time making older, stodgy physicists listen to him. Then he meets Dovie, who lives like a normal teenager, oblivious to the impending doom. Being with her, on the adventures she plans when he's not at NASA, Yuri catches a glimpse of what it means to save the world and save a life worth living.

Prepare to laugh, cry, cringe, and have your mind burst open with questions of the universe.

Part dryly humorous contemporary and part impending apocalyptic disaster, Learning to Swear in America is an interesting story, but ultimately one that doesn't completely work. The novel centers on teenage Russian genius named Yuri as a fish out of water in America as he uses math to try to save the world from a planet-killing steroid. From there it involves a sadly stereotypical teenage romance (with a poorly-drawn female character named Dovie), and then kind of meanders around waiting for Yuri to get the girl and save the world. The premise has a lot of promise but the execution of this debut falters early on.

I had several issues with this book, but the biggest one was how dissatisfied I was with the depiction of Dovie. I liked Lennon's inclusion to the storyline far more, especially because he is a disabled character which are few and far between in any kind of YA, but his sister's characterization is cliche enough to warrant an MPDG label. Dovie is a collection of try-hard characteristics (admittedly Yuri calls her out on this as well), but the novel presents her as a reward for Yuri's heroics more than anything else. It's a waste of a character and a cheap way to present a love interest. I can't root for this romance if one character isn't presented as a complete person.

The writing in Learning to Swear in America can also verge on uninentionally hilarious. Yuri does not think or read like an American -- which I appreciated since he is very much Russian -- but occasionally Kennedy would really stumble when it came to writing her character's internal monologues or dialogue. This was taken from the ARC version but I present without comment the following quotation from when Yuri attend a high school prom: "...he was aroused just thinking about her hem swishing rhythmically against his shoe leather." Granted, that sentence could very well change. But it's a cringe-worthy line and not the only one to be found.  

By far, the best part of this book is the science angle and the depth of research that went into creating this pivotal piece of the plot. The preparation for the asteroid, the countless ploys to save the world, Yuri's own belief in his abilities.. those elements of the story really worked in a way the rest just did not. If the focus had been more on Yuri's experience there in the lab, I would have been a bigger fan. But sadly, and weirdly, the asteroid plotline is wrapped up far too early and then the book focuses more on the even less imaginable secondary plotline. It's a messy way to conclude the story and leaves little to no impact, much like 1019.

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