We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach – Review by Oona Marie Abrams
Whoever said “don’t judge a book by its cover” has never taught high school. Even a cursory glance at covers during independent reading reveals boys who choose books based exclusively on their dearth of pinkness. The cover of We All Looked Up offers images of the four narrators, two male and two female, their backs to the audience, all on the cusp of high school graduation, all having endured years of being judged by their proverbial covers.
Peter, the first narrator, is a scholar, an athlete, and a student council representative; he has a beautiful (albeit flighty) girlfriend named Stacy, and he’s going to Stanford on a sports scholarship. Despite all of these surface successes, Peter feels that “his certainties had all disappeared.” Having taught 12th graders for many years, I’ve witnessed countless existential crises. As commencement approaches and dreams of college acceptances have come true, prospective graduates are paradoxically terrified of what may (or may not) lie ahead.
During his junior year, Peter’s capricious hook-up with the second narrator, Eliza, has now made her the target of a venomous “mean girls” campaign courtesy of Stacy. Obviously, after a year of being tormented, Eliza wants nothing to do with Peter. As Peter sees Eliza leaving school one evening, he notes “a single bright star, blue as a sapphire,” then points it out to her in wonder. Though neither is aware, the star foreshadows the fatal meteor that will strike in just a few months. So, star-crossed lovers? Not so much.
Eliza’s catalogue of problems includes a mother who walked out and a father with pancreatic cancer, issues that eclipse the college admissions agita of her peers. She finds an outlet in taking photographs and composing blog posts on Tumblr. Armed with the knowledge that two thirds of the population are most likely to perish in only a few short months, Eliza captures the events at her school on camera and blogs about them (much to her principal’s chagrin).
Anita, the novel’s third narrator, serves on student council with Peter, plans to attend Princeton in the fall, and is expected by her affluent parents to be “a good little black girl with an Ivy League degree and a serious career.” Of all the characters, it is Anita who changes most drastically over the course of the novel. If the likelihood of death in several weeks wasn’t 66.6%, then the shifts in her peer group, dress and attitude towards her parents would all be shocking.
And then, of course, there’s Andy, the kid in class who values a social life and sleep much more than academics. His wealthy parents ignore him, and his suite in their house is the place everyone goes to party. This is how we meet Peter’s sister, Misery, thus forming Andy’s loose connection to Peter and the other two narrators. Of course, Andy is upset by news of the asteroid, but his dread is tempered in comparison to the other three narrators. His greatest fear is dying a virgin.
Wallach’s novel makes for a solid and incisive YA read that is friendly to both males and females. The narrative contains little fluff, each character’s internal monologue is authentic, and Wallach writes with enough ambiguity to give the reader some speculative work. It has a well constructed and believable ending. Students will identify with at least one of the narrators and likely find themselves intrigued by how that character is described and interpreted by the others.
I like to think of Wallach’s novel as a version of John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club on steroids; this motley crew has drawn the stubbiest of all straws. Adolescence assumes invincibility and the heady presumption that we have “all the time in the world.” But when we don’t, we have to figure out who we really are and what most matters. Arguably, We All Looked Up is written as much for adults as it is for adolescents. For students who struggle to connect with the canonical, who spurn a whole class novel study on texts such as The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace, Wallach’s novel could be the home run book they need, distilling many of the same themes and conflicts in a relevant and modern context.
Oona Marie Abrams (@oonziela) has been teaching high school English in northern New Jersey since 1996. She has a stack of books on her bedside table that she would love to read more quickly, but she also has four energetic children and a husband who travels often on business. While she drives, cooks, cleans, and does laundry, she listens to audiobooks. Oona serves as editor of English Leadership Quarterly, and the October 2016 issue theme is “Connecting Readers.”