The Calculus of Change is such a sweet and moving piece of realistic YA fiction. It begins as a story of unrequited love — Aden is secretly in love with her classmate and friend Tate, whom she tutors in Calculus and who already has a girlfriend — and I requested it for review originally because I love the friends-turned-lovers and the shy-girl-gets-the-guy-in-the-end tropes. But the story reveals itself fairly early on as being much more than a romance; there’s almost a Judy Blume feel in the texture of its realism and in the themes it tackles about family, friendship and spirituality.
Much of the story actually centres on family issues and coming to terms with grief. Aden, her brother Jon and their father have a somewhat strained relationship, partly because the father has a hair-trigger temper than keeps his children on edge even though he never quite gets physically violent. Early in the book, he jokes about being like a teenager himself in his mood swings, and I love how Hilb keeps the tension thrumming just beneath the surface in that scene — we know it’s a lame out for his immaturity, but we can also understand why Aden would let it pass. As the story progresses, however, we see that a lot of the strain also has to do with the family’s struggle to get over the death of Aden and Jon’s mother, an event they all just kinda deal with, but never actually worked out in depth as a family. Scenes where Aden’s father watches her playing her mother’s guitar or gives her lyrics her mother has written are beautifully heart-wrenching in the subtlety of their execution.
Moreover, Aden’s attraction to Tate in the first place is somewhat linked to her missing her mother: she notices him for the yarmulke he always wears. While Aden’s family isn’t very spiritual, her mother was Jewish, and her earlier conversations with Tate are about Judaism and their shared heritage. While their friendship later expands beyond spirituality, I love how this romance is more than the usual hot-guy-heartthrob, and how her feelings for Tate are somewhat interwoven with her desire to know her mother better.
I also like the way the romance and somewhat love triangle feel real. Often, Tate’s girlfriend Maggie would be portrayed as a popular mean girl, but Hilb instead chooses to make her likeable. She was so likeable that even though I knew I was supposed to be rooting for Aden and Tate to get together, I couldn’t help but root for Maggie to keep Tate instead, since they actually seemed good together. I particularly love how self-aware Hilb makes Aden, such that even when she lashes out at Maggie, she knows Maggie didn’t actually do anything to deserve it. In one of my favourite parts, Aden reflects on how easy it would be to frame the love triangle as a Taylor Swift song, with Aden as the girl next door and Maggie as the bitchy cheerleader, but the truth is that there’s a bit of both personalities in both of them.
There are so many other subplots that round out these characters and make them feel so real, including body image issues (Aden is insecure next to thinner and prettier girls like Maggie and Aden’s best friend Marissa), sexual assault, sex with regrets, sex with consequences, and so on. I was particularly moved by the subplot that explored romantic power dynamics — Marissa is in a relationship with her English teacher (who is married with children) and is seriously considering having sex with him. I love how realistically this plays out (until possibly the very end which seems a bit too easy), with Aden struggling between wanting to report the relationship as inappropriate but not wanting to hurt Marissa.
There’s also a very well written subplot about financial barriers in Aden and Jon’s family, with both teens wanting to go to prestigious colleges but not having enough money to afford both. Jon’s dilemma of going to his dream school for his dream program or going to a college where he may have a shot at a sports scholarship is very relatable, as is Aden’s being torn between supporting her brother and wishing he chooses the scholarship to increase her chances of her father being able to send her to her dream school.
My one (admittedly slight and possibly unjust) disappointment is that there wasn’t a lot of calculus in the story. I was expecting a wonderfully geeky romance like When Dimple Met Rishi, yet there was very little geekiness in the story.
Beautifully written and compellingly told, this is a powerful, moving story with so much packed inside. I loved it.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.