The Love That Split the World, by Emily Henry

I added this book to my to-read list over at Goodreads shortly after it came out in January 2016. I don’t remember the exact circumstances why I added it, so I’ll take an educated guess. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and the plot includes main character Natalie Cleary getting visions of things that aren’t there. And then the mash-up statement that this was “Friday Night Lights meets The Time Traveler’s Wife” totally hooked me, though I’ll admit I forgot about that bit when I eventually started reading it.

Somewhere between now and then, I got the email from Goodreads alerting me that the book was on sale for something like $1.99, so I downloaded it to my Kindle. After reading something heavy, I thought a good paranormal YA love story would be a nice change of pace, so I started it.

And it wasn’t what I expected. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing.

The story begins with Natalie receiving a late-night visit from “Grandmother”—perhaps a spiritual entity or an imaginary friend who tells her stories. Grandmother hadn’t visited in a long time, perhaps because earlier in her life, Natalie underwent some psychotherapy because of nightmares. But Grandmother is back with an ominous warning: Natalie has three months to save him, and she should seek Alice Chan for assistance.

This is a wonderful starting point. There are clear stakes (three months to save someone!), and a clear mystery (who’s the him that needs to be saved?)—maybe even more than one mystery (who’s Alice Chan, why is she important, and how does Natalie find her?)—so I wanted to keep reading.

It’s the last few days of senior year, so throughout the book, Natalie is also dealing with some of the same issues that all high-schoolers are dealing with, most particularly finding her identity. She lives in small-town Kentucky, but she’s heading off to New England to attend Brown University in the fall, partially to figure herself out beyond her small town. She has just broken up with her boyfriend of three years, the school’s football hero Matt Kincaid, so she’s trying to navigate life without being part of a couple. And her family—younger twin siblings Jack and Coco, and her parents—are white, and she’s Native American, adopted by them when she was an infant, so she doesn’t completely know her full heritage.

Grandmother’s stories are tales from a variety of Native Nations, and they provide clues to the mystery Natalie is trying to solve. But then Natalie finds Alice Chan, a psychology professor at a nearby university, and a diagnosis of repressed trauma eventually uncovers theories of alternate universes and timelines. Concurrently, Natalie meets the hunky Beau Wilkes—perhaps the famed “band room ghost”—who has an uncanny ability to travel between universes and through time.

And here’s where the book doesn’t work as well for me. There’s a lot of telling in the book instead of showing; Grandmother tells these stories, Alice tells her theories. They’re interesting, but there are many passages of Natalie just listening and absorbing where not much else happens. Also, the juxtaposition of the nature and spirituality of Grandmother’s tales with Alice’s scientific explanations don’t mesh well, and it’s never fully explained why Beau—and ultimately Natalie—are able to do what they do. It’s not that I need an explanation, as I’m often willing to suspend my disbelief in a YA contemporary fantasy, but the many possible explanations muddle the story, thus undermining the impact of the interesting Native Nation tales.

Eventually, we learn which him needs to be saved, and it’s a doozy! I loved the revelation, and I really loved the revelation of who Grandmother is, but when Natalie learns what she would have to do (and why) to save him, I was shocked. And in retrospect, I’m disappointed.

The book is strongest when Natalie is on her journey to find her singular identity. She struggles to make a full break from Matt, sometimes getting pulled back to him, even when he does some terrible things. She struggles with her adoptive family’s tradition as she’s trying to solve the clues. She questions her decision to go to Brown, especially since she’s just met Beau and enters into an instalove relationship with him. All these aspects of the book and Natalie as a character are realized exceptionally well.

But the ending goes against all that. It’s not about finding oneself, and that’s why—despite the book’s strengths—I can’t rate this too high. This disparity splits the world of the book and my love for it, so The Love That Split the World receives THREE AND A HALF STARS.

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The Love That Split the World is available at Amazon.

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