I had high hopes for this book. The plot seemed to have just the type of quirkiness I love – seventeen year old Alex Woods had been hit by a meteor at age ten, and his life hasn’t been the same since. He forms a friendship with a curmudgeonly old man, and when the book opens, is caught in a car with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn of ashes. “Yes,” Alex tells the cop who pulls him over. “That was Mr Petersen.”
The Universe versus Alex Woods starts off with a promising beginning. The quote in the previous paragraph is on page 15, and comes only a few pages after Alex explains that the marijuana was indeed for personal use, just not his personal use but rather Mr Petersen’s, and that he hadn’t been resisting arrest, but rather been experiencing an epileptic seizure that may or may not be linked to having been hit by a meteor years ago.
The problem with such an awesome beginning is that the rest of the book has to live up to it, and in the case of Alex Woods, Gavin Extence was unable to maintain the momentum. The rest of the book is a fairly solid coming of age story, but sadly a fairly plodding one. The meteor incident set Alex apart as different and his natural awkwardness made him a social outcast. He is a celebrity of sorts in the scientific world, and he relates most easily with a scientist who is studying the meteor that hit him. An incident with bullies leads to a friendship with Mr Petersen, with whom Alex soon shares a love for Kurt Vonnegut’s books. And that’s when the story begins to plod. On one hand, the story then delves into a complex ethical quandary with no easy answers. On the other hand, the witty edge of the first part of the book begins to dull.
Part of it is that from the beginning, we already have an inkling of how things will turn out, and for most of the book, it simply becomes a matter of getting back to that point. And the story takes its time doing so. Another part is that the meteor incident seems to have been completely forgotten in the second half. What’s the point of having a character who had been hit by a meteor if it ends up not playing a role for most of the book?
Most of all however, it’s a slow book, and not the kind of slow that is savoured. Rather, I found my attention wandering, and I found myself longing for the humour that hooked me in the first few pages. The book does raise important ethical questions, but as the protagonist himself is pretty clear about what he considers the moral choice, much of the narrative tension is gone.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.