We can all name them. Books we never want to end. Books that we hope possess the magical ability to sit on our bedside table each night and grow more chapters for us to read the following morning. Well, here is a Please-Don’t-Ever-End book. Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet is an exhilarating read, intellectually, creatively, aesthetically. It is wild and bold and filled with extraordinary and lovely writing. It is like no other young adult book I have ever read. It is one of the best books I have read in years. It is masterful.
Life is a postmodern novel, with an epic story that deeply challenges typical narrative structures. It sweeps across the world from the British countryside to Cuba to America; it mixes fiction with fact; it changes from third person to first person -- sometimes in the middle of a chapter! It spans great chunks of time, opening with a suicidal Nazi pilot in the final days of World War II and ending with – well, I won’t tell you what it ends with. But how many books have you read cut from a teen romance for a chapter on the history of Cuba? Or zips from imminent teenage sex to John F. Kennedy debating the Cuban Missile Crisis inside the Whitehouse? Sometimes an exploding missile can be metaphorical.
At its heart this book is a love story and a coming-of-age story. But not just for two teenagers in love, Clem and Frankie, but an atomic-coming-of-age story for our planet and the madness of war and the tick-tock of nuclear annihilation. Clem’s dad works for Frankie’s very wealthy family on their British estate. They must keep their romance a secret. If their families find out the result will be brutal. Clem’s dad could lose his job. Frankie would be shipped off to boarding school.
It is 1962. Clem and Frankie are locked in each other's arms and Khrushchev and Kennedy are locked in a nuclear pissing contest. Kennedy really did secretly tape-record many of the Whitehouse discussions on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those tapes have been made public and Peet has his characters quote the actual words. And amidst this impending doom of Mutually Assured Destruction, Mal Peet gives us some wonderful bits of subversive humor.
After spending 300 pages flying on a literary jet stream, I must admit that I was disappointed with how Peet decided to end the book. Not the very ending -- I actually love the very ending -- but the last 40 pages. It seems to stand apart from the rest of the book in style and substance. Maybe I was disappointed with the direction he took his story, or maybe I felt it was rushed, or maybe I didn't really buy a final piece to his puzzle. I don’t really know. But it makes no real difference because the book still soars.
And there will be another debate. Is this really a young adult book? The first 100 pages are about adults. And Clem and Frankie don’t even meet until well after that. And what young adult, some will argue, will want to read a chapter on Cuban history and another on the destructive power of atomic bombs? These are silly arguments. Of course this is a young adult book; it's a teenage romance for crying out loud. Just because it swaps vampires for history (thankfully!) and challenges readers with unique storytelling, doesn’t mean young adults won’t read it. Hand this book to the right kid – someone who appreciates good writing, is interested in history and politics, has a streak of iconoclasm -- and they will devour it. Just like I did. But don't get fooled by that young adult label. Life is a book for everyone who likes to think and feel, and those of us who want to scream to stop blowing up our planet.
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