Serena’s Review: “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe”

36039614Book: “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” by Lauren James

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: The daughter of two astronauts, Romy Silvers is no stranger to life in space. But she never knew how isolating the universe could be until her parents’ tragic deaths left her alone on the Infinity, a spaceship speeding away from Earth.

Romy tries to make the best of her lonely situation, but with only brief messages from her therapist on Earth to keep her company, she can’t help but feel like something is missing. It seems like a dream come true when NASA alerts her that another ship, the Eternity, will be joining the Infinity.

Romy begins exchanging messages with J, the captain of the Eternity, and their friendship breathes new life into her world. But as the Eternity gets closer, Romy learns there’s more to J’s mission than she could have imagined. And suddenly, there are worse things than being alone….

Review: I had heard great things about this book both from the general online book community, as well as from some of my friends in person. And the fact that when I went to request it from the library list I found myself at the back of a very long waiting list also spoke to the general popularity of this title. So, patiently, I waited. A few weeks ago, my name finally came around and I immediately checked out the audiobook and dove in. Sadly, this entire story ends with the fact that I once again fell victim to a combination of over-hyped books and, probably, my own science fiction snobbery, resulting in me not loving this book.

For the past several years, teenage Romy has lived alone on her spaceshift. Born aboard to the two astronauts originally selected for this first mission to a far off planet, Romy has known nothing but life in space. Her only connections to humanity have been through media and communications with a NASA councelor who has helped her manage her anxiety. With years still ahead of her before she reaches her destination, Romy’s life is one of boredom and loneliness. That is until she hears that another, faster ship is coming. Aboard is J, her first contact with humanity. But their close friendship, developed through messaging back and forth, quickly begins to highlight questions about Romy’s own time on her ship and J’s ultimate mission.

I really, really wanted to love this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a really good science fiction story, and the premise of this one sounds fantastic. Seriously, full marks to whomever wrote the book description and designed the cover art: this book has serious “hook” value. But then I started reading it and pretty much had immediate problems.

First things first, as I said above, some of this comes down purely to my own science fiction snobbery. I think that perhaps general YA fiction fans would have a lot fewer issues with this book than I did, especially if science fiction isn’t a go-to genre for them. But if I’m going to read a science fiction/space novel, I want that: science fiction. The story starts out with a bang, and after a short action scene, we’re immediately into a character introspection from Romy herself and her thoughts on anxiety. As a discussion on mental health, sure this is good. But there simply wasn’t enough about the science/space angle of things for me. We barely hear anything about the ship itself, or how it was set up to complete its mission, or what specific skills Romy has developed having lived her entire life on this ship. Instead, again, in that very first scene, we see Romy barely avoiding a disaster and then setting out to “read the manual” on the ship so she knows better what to do next time. What? You’re telling me this girl has lived her entire life on this ship, the last several years all alone, and she’s somehow not a complete expert on everything going on here? This starts to get into my character problems, but to summarize this section, this book simply didn’t have enough of the details about life in space and the ship itself to meet my higher expectations for science fiction. There were also a few things that legitimately don’t make any sense for space travel which left me questioning how much research the author really put into this (Romy uses scissors to open food…pretty sure they have tear-off packets of food rather than packing scissors into space for stuff like this).

Now, the characters. As I alluded to in the previous bit, I had some immediate issues with Romy right from the get go. For one thing, I had very mixed feelings about the discussions about Romy’s anxiety and mental health. I get that these are important topics, and it’s great representation to have them included. However, sometimes it starts to feel like these aspects of a character/story are added simply to check some nebulous box, and this works to the detriment of the story. I wanted a science fiction action/thriller story, and instead was getting a lot of character details that were both too much and yet also never quite enough to carry my interest. Beyond that, I found Romy to be very hard to find believable as a character who has grown up in such a unique environment.

We have the weird lack of knowledge of her own ship, yes. But on top of that, she reads just like your average, every day teenage girl. And I just couldn’t get on board with that type of characterization for a protagonist whose entire existence would be shaped by events so out of the ordinary. She hasn’t had human contact in years, and before that, only ever her parents. She’s lived her entire life on a very small ship. And yet she reads like “Jane Doe Teenager” in almost every way. Not only did this not make her interesting, but it actively rubbed wrong against what we know about her life experience. It felt like such a missed opportunity, really.

As for the story itself, I also had a few problems. Romy writes fanfiction as a pastime. Sure, this makes sense for the character. But that doesn’t mean I want to read pages of said fanfiction. It honestly felt like the author was essentially trying to recreate Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl” but in space! And that didn’t work for me. Especially when I couldn’t help but mourn the page time devoted to this aspect of the story in place of more science fiction details.

I will say that the twists of the story were interesting. But interesting in the way that they read as exciting, but if you stop and think about them very hard, they also start to fall apart pretty quickly. J’s backstory, motivation, and actions never made much real sense to me, and some of the twists required huge portions of the book to read as strange before the answers are revealed. I spent a good portion of the book questioning the basic premise of the entire mission in a way that was ultimately more distracting than beneficial when the reveal finally put together the pieces in the end.

So, sadly, in the end this book wasn’t for me. I think general YA fiction fans would quite enjoy it (indeed, obviously they  have!). But if you like science fiction in particular, I think there are a lot of elements of this story that will read as more frustrating than intriguing. I also feel like the character work was lacking throughout. It’s no fault of the book’s, but when you have similar titles like “The Martian” hanging around out there, that succeeded so well based on the great scientific aspects and, more importantly, incredible main character at its heart, this book feels even more flat than it would in a vacuum.

Rating 5: Some science fiction snobbery on my part, and I think a legitimately weak main character left this book not quite hitting the mark for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on “YA Space Operas.”

Find “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” at your library using WorldCat!

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