My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Sense of the Infinite is one of those rare pieces of literature that works well within its genre while subtly undoing all the criticism of said genre. It is a rare YA novel that boldly discusses controversial issues without trivializing the adolescent experience or dissolving into an after school special. It is nearly 400 pages of spare prose without a single word out of place, 137 tiny chapters and yet each one holds a glimmering nugget of truth to it. This book is everything I wish I had read when I was 17.
At its most basic, A Sense of the Infinite is a story about growing up, about coming into your own and learning to love and accept the parts of you that feel, well, monstrous. I think most 17-year-olds have those bits of themselves they would wish away if given the chance, and Annabeth’s are anything but trivial. Annabeth is the “everygirl” in a lot of ways: like most teenagers, she doesn’t really know what the hell she’s doing with her life and is somewhat content to just follow along with whatever other kids are doing. Meanwhile, she struggles silently with a huge secret: that her father raped her mother, that she feels like a monster in her own body. She keeps this secret from everyone, including her best friend, Noe.
On the surface, Annabeth’s story revolves around her friendship with Noe. In the beginning, Annabeth can’t imagine life without Noe—“her friendship was a jewel I guarded like a dragon, keeping it always in the crook of my hand.” While Annabeth spends most of her days quietly, preferring the gentle pull of nature over the exuberance of her peers, Noe is this hugely vibrant person who goes out of her way to make friends, compliment teachers, and even develops a relationship with her boyfriend’s mom. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think many of us had a Noe in middle or high school: the loud, confident one who seemed to have everything together, who allegedly wanted nothing more than to help us along. Reading this as an adult, I saw the breakdown of their friendship coming from the beginning of the story, but that doesn’t make it any less poignant.
“Sometimes the whole situation reminded me of a Venn diagram: there was the place where Noe and I overlapped absolutely, and two moon-shaped zones where there was no overlap at all. Noe’s boys lived in the no-overlap zone, and my obsession with being outdoors—things we happily tolerated in each other, but to which we didn’t pay much attention.”
While Annabeth seems powerless to stop this inevitable breakdown, she’s very cognizant of how tenuous their friendship is, and does what she can to protect it. (view spoiler) A big part of the story involves Annabeth learning how to go her own way, how to follow her dreams instead of tagging in Noe’s footsteps. As someone who certainly had my own version of Noe in high school, I was glad to see Annabeth struggle through the tough times and build her own life out of the wreckage of that friendship.
What Hilary T. Smith does so well is how she deals with the Big Issues: delicately and honestly, so that we almost forget we’re reading about them at all. I admire this immensely, as someone who wants to write feminist stories about girls grappling with issues like teen pregnancy, abortion, eating disorders, and even mental illness. I could delve into each one, but that would involve too many spoilers, so I’ll stick with this one:
Noe’s boyfriend, Steven, is one of the most compelling characters, and a great example of Smith’s ease at introducing these issues. (view spoiler) Even while recovering from his own mental illness, Steven manages to help Annabeth overcome hers and reminds her that “the thing that’s actually wrong with you is probably tiny to nonexistent compared to the things you’ve made yourself believe are wrong with you.” All this in a supporting character and the best part? (view spoiler)
All this might sound like typical YA stuff, and maybe it is. What’s different about this book is the how, the fact that Smith tells this sprawling, beautiful, heart-breaking and inspiring story, but she does it in tiny glimpses, in brief moments, in poignant scenes. I read this book in 24 hours and I didn’t want it to end. I want to see Annabeth slaying in college, trekking through the forest, falling in love for the first time, e-mailing Steven in New York and watching him blossom too. These characters and their lives felt so real to me that I was sad to see them go. I haven’t felt this way about a YA novel in years. So bravo, Hilary T. Smith. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.