Author: Robin Talley
Our Own Private Universe is a young adult novel written from the first person perspective of fifteen year old Aki Simon. I am far from the target demographic but have always enjoyed reading YA and this one is no exception but I found that the maturity level was lower than I expected yet the content was more mature than I expected. I’m not sure that even makes sense to me so perhaps I will spend the rest of the review trying to explain what I mean.
Aki Simon has known that she’s bi-sexual for a while but she’s never really done anything about it so when the youth group from her church goes to Mexico for the summer with youth groups from two other churches she decides this is the summer she stops waiting for something to happen and she starts living her life.
The summer program sees the youth groups head to a small town in Mexico to help them build a new church. It’s about working together, meeting new people, getting in touch with their faith and a host of other benefits. It brings together students from three different areas and transplants them somewhere completely out of their comfort zone which offers a huge scope for diversity and this is something Talley has used to her advantage. The students are mainly Juniors and Seniors in high school with the exception of Aki and her best friend Lori, they are a year or two younger but an exception was made for them because they have family chaperoning the trip.
Aki knows she’s bi but having not explored that she is still uncertain about so many things and decides this summer is about doing something instead of sitting back thinking about doing something. She meets the slightly older Christa on their first day and it seems like Aki’s experiment may just happen.
I think Our Own Private Universe is a great book for teens who may not be certain of their sexuality. Aki knows she’s bi but she doesn’t have it all worked out and she’s not sure why, she feels like she should have it all worked out; like everyone else knows where they’re at and who they like long before 15. I think this is a great element to explore because I’m sure there are plenty of 15 year olds in a similar position who would enjoy reading that they aren’t alone and you don’t have to have it all figured out, and maybe you won’t ever have it all figured out.
Sexuality was definitely the main focus of the book but it wasn’t the only focus, honesty and trust played a major role. There was a lot of lying and breaking people’s confidence; everyone’s secrets ended up being shared and the lies grew. In the end there were so many lies of differing importance that it was hard to work out if there was anyone left who hadn’t betrayed someone’s confidence. This is something that grated because dishonesty is my all time biggest deal-breaker but it was all used to demonstrate how much better things can be if you are honest. Often situations aren’t as bad as you predict if you come clean from the start and talk things through.
The storyline is great, the questioning and the exploration of identity and sexuality was well written and it felt authentic to me. I do think this is an important book for teens to read because if it touches readers in a way that helps them come to terms with their own identity then it’s hit its mark. I’m not sure what age I would start encouraging teens to read though; the story is one I would love to have my 13 year old read but I’m not sure I’m ready for her to read all of the scenes.
Aki and Christa’s summer romance is at the heart of this book so it stands to reason that their exploration of their sexuality together plays a large role in the narrative; the fact that they are exploring and discovering this brand new side to themselves makes their encounters important and an integral part of the story so their detailed nature is important to the story but I think I would keep it for another year or two before I have my teen read it. The intimate scenes are not gratuituous, they have an important role in the story so they do need to be there but just be warned if you are recommending it to younger readers.
The friendship dynamic between Aki and best friend Lori seemed quite typical with teen jealousies, insecurities and falling outs; the way they sorted their drama out by the end of the book also seemed authentic. Yes, this book did seem a little over-dramatic at times but life for 15 year olds often is.
There is a whole focus in the last third of the book on social issues that will be brought up at a church convention later in the year and the youth group participants all get involved with the positions that need to be voted on to show the adults that they are thinking about the issues and they have clear views on the issues. This element culminated in a debate that demonstrated a passion in many of the students on important social issues.
Our Own Private Universe has a lot of fantastic things going for it in terms of subject matter and relatability but the main characters could be quite blinkered and annoying, they could be quite immature and it seemed everyone was lying about something. The good far outweighed my criticisms and I really enjoyed the story.