We All Looked Up, by Tommy Wallach

At the end of every school year, my school’s students vote among 3-5 books nominated by the English Language Arts department to be the one common summer reading book for all students. Last summer, the book that won was The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. It was about a detective investigating a murder against a backdrop of a world anticipating an impact of an incoming asteroid. Though I somewhat enjoyed the book (review here), I didn’t see it as having much teen appeal, especially since three of the previous four summer books were huge YA titles like The Hunger Games, Thirteen Reasons Why, and The Fault in Our Stars.

Shortly after finishing the book, I learned about We All Looked Up, another story about an impending asteroid collision, but clearly within the Young Adult genre. I bought it for my Kindle right away but didn’t get around to reading it until now. This could have been the book my school read last summer because of how truthfully it portrays teenagers trying to find their place in the world—even if it’s a world that would soon be ending. We All Looked Up unfolds like a pre-apocalyptic Breakfast Club, with a lot of character depth and a lot to say about teens struggling with their identities and futures.

The book follows four main characters, and I’ll introduce them by their high-school types, even though they all have so much more complexity than the type. Peter is the athlete with a scholarship, Eliza is the girl with the bad reputation, Andy is the skateboarding slacker in a band, and Anita is the overachiever headed to Princeton. Author Wallach intertwines their stories, alternating the narration—not first person, but about as close to first person as third-person limited can allow. Instead of chapters, there are ten parts, broken into narration for each of the characters. Structurally, it’s expertly handled, and even when the characters’ paths cross, there’s never a doubt whose headspace the reader primarily inhabits.

The first part introduces the characters very nicely, giving enough of their family background as well. And each have a moment where they catch the first glimpses of the asteroid ARDR-1388 (later referenced as Ardor—a name rife with symbolism). What most impressed me in this part was how each character noticed the next one to be introduced. This gave the story incredible fluidity, given the usually difficult convention of multiple narratives. It’s not forced at all here.

The story progresses into their divergent ways of initially dealing with the news that there’s a 66.7% chance the asteroid will hit. Peter starts volunteering more. Eliza documents events with photographs on her blog. Andy just wants to lose his virginity. Anita wants to rebel against her overbearing parents and become a singer. All their goals are true and believable, but this book is about the journey more than the destination, and watching their journeys converge and collide and change and grow was what this book was really about.

These characters are interconnected from the get-go, in ways that are superficial (Peter’s younger sister “Misery” dates Andy’s bandmate Bobo), and shocking (I won’t reveal how others are), but it goes with an idea presented in the book that they’re a part of a karass. As Kurt Vonnegut describes it, a karass is a group of people unpredictably but spiritually linked together. That got me to thinking about the television show Lost, and when I start comparing a book to that show, the book is affecting me on a profound level. These characters—like many young adults (or people in general)—were lost in their own ways, but can they come together for a greater good—even if that greater good is throwing a kick-ass end of the world party?

My biggest issue with the book, unfortunately, is the large volume of inappropriate behavior: foul language, violence, drinking and drug use, and disrespect for parents and authority in general. I’m not asking for squeaky clean teenage characters—I’m a high school teacher and I understand reality—and I want my teen characters to be flawed and to make mistakes and even to sound and act realistically. They do most of the time, but for a few parts before the final one, the situations they find themselves in read a little too outlandish. Their parents (not fully realized characters by any means) become almost non-existent, and though a book about the characters sitting safe at home would be boring to read, believability is lacking in those few parts.

The final part, however, is well executed. I won’t spoil it here, but I liked where three out of four main characters ended up. And I thought the philosophical questions that are raised—particularly by Eliza—are really strong.

The structure of the book is great. The four main characters are complex, relatable, and interesting to read about. The story is less about the asteroid and more about the theme of doing what we can with the time we have. They all collide together well for more than 66.7% of the book, which makes it looking up at FOUR STARS.

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We All Looked Up is available at Amazon.

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