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Book Review: PLUS ONE by Elizabeth Fama

This book.  Oh my goodness, people – this book!

Here’s the basic premise:

During the flu epidemic of 1918 the government decided that some people would get to be awake and operate during the day (Rays) and others during the night (Smudges).  This decreased the amount of contact people had with one another and helped end the plague.  But it also created a caste system where the privileged Rays get to live a regular life and the looked down upon Smudges never get to see the sun.  In fact, Smudges have to take a variety of medication to help regulate their sleep and wake cycle.  Everyone is forced to carry documentation and if you are caught out past your curfew by the Hour Guards you are thrown in jail.

Sol is a Smudge who concocts a plan to help her dying grandfather have one last moment of joy that involves breaking curfew and kidnapping babies.  This plan, of course, goes all wrong.  But she meets a boy named D’Arcy along the way and together the two of them fall in love and discover lots of truths about themselves, their world, and the lives they thought they were living.  It is a very thoughtful and complex look at politics, privilege, government, and more.

A More In Depth Look at the Sexual Politics of Plus One (Slightly Spoilerish about Two Scenes, but Not Plot or Ending)

And tucked inside are some very harrowing scenes that shed some stunning light on sexual politics as well.  I am now going to discuss them in a very spoiler free way.  You see, while on the run, Sol meets a young woman named Gigi and they have a conversation where they barter for Gigi’s help.  They use some very loaded language about rape as a metaphor for taking advantage of someone. And then, the 3 teens are stopped by an Hour Guard who uses his power to coerce Gigi into a sexual act in exchange for their safety.  It also is a harrowing scene, very uncomfortable to read and Fama uses the character of Sol and her reactions to remind us all the very complicated nature of power and sexual politics.

BUT THEN . . . there is one of the most sex positive and consent positive scenes I have ever read between Sol and D’Arcy.  It’s an amazing scene because Sol is very sure of what she wants and has the power to express it.  That’s right, a female character taking charge of her sexual desires in positive ways.  And in the midst of this scene, D’Arcy even reaffirms that this is indeed what she wants.  It manages to be consent positive and still very sexy.  It is a really good example to readers about what healthy sexual interaction can look like.

The Rest of the Review (Spoiler Free)

But let’s talk about Sol.  I love that Sol is a very complex, multilayered character.  She is driven, but very human and her plans often fail or get off track.  She has rough, hard edges built up by growing up in a system that affords her little freedom and is designed to tell her how little potential she actually has.  Yet under that is a layer of depth, intelligence, and sometimes even hope.  She is very passionate and dedicated, but sometimes reckless and selfish.  And in the end . . .

Actually, the ending of this book is so powerful.  it is an example of complex and amazing storytelling.  Fama doesn’t take the easy way out.  The plot has built up in such a way that you know there is no way everyone can come out of this with what they want.  So Sol arranges it so that a best case scenario happens – and she takes control of the situation even while others around her try to take that control away from her.  She makes incredible sacrifices – showing tremendous courage and growth – to create the best possible outcome for most of the people involved, including more than just our immediate players.  As they say, sometimes doing what is right is not easy, and that is definitely exemplified here.

I will say that Plus One was a slow start for me.  Fama takes her time building the world and introducing the characters and the plot, and I can be an impatient reader.  The set-up takes almost the first 75 pages.  But then it really starts steamrolling and I could not put it down and those beginning bits and pieces are important, they make sense.  Afterwards, I was amazed at everything Fama was able to put into this one book and how it really makes you think.  She does everything good storytelling does; the characters grow and draw you in, the layers are peeled back and reveal a complex and intricately woven world that makes you reflect upon the realities of our own, and then she makes you just want to talk to everyone about this book. It definitely and superbly sheds a kind of sideways light on a lot of the very discussions we are having in our world today about class, privilege, justice, politics, and more.  It is a masterclass in complex and sublime storytelling.

About That Cover

The cover makes it look like this is a romance, which it is not.  There is a love story in there.  And truthfully, the way Fama is able to make it so that this is not a case of insta-love even though our characters have just met is very creative and, yes, romantic. But there is so much more to this story. I fear that the cover might prevent non romance readers from picking this book up, and they will be missing out because this is not really a romance. I am not a romance reader, and I loved this book.

I give this 5 stars and highly recommend it.  Obviously you’ll want to note if you need to know that there are some intense sexual discussions and content and a little bit of violence.  Also, I contacted Elizabeth Fama yesterday after reading this book and she has graciously agreed to join our Sexual Violence in YA Lit panel for September.  I can’t wait to hear her talk about this book.

I received an ARC of this book for review in exchange for an honest review. It comes out in April 2014 from Farrar Straus Giroux.  ISBN: 978-374-36007-8.

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