I’m a bit of a cliché. I have always wanted to be an astronaut. Ever since I went to the Ontario Science Centre in grade 5 and did a mission to Mars simulation with my class, I’ve been fascinated by it. Not only is space itself so incomprehensible to my brain, but the possibility that we might be able to one day have people live on Mars is mind-boggling…and exciting.
When I came across The Gravity of Us by newcomer Phil Stamper (in stores February 4), I was hooked from the moment I saw NASA. Add to the fact that it’s a YA novel with a gay protagonist (#ownvoices) and the addition of a reality TV show and I just knew I had to read it.
Cal wants to be a journalist, and he’s already well underway with almost half a million followers on his FlashFame app and an upcoming internship at Buzzfeed. But his plans are derailed when his pilot father is selected for a highly publicized NASA mission to Mars. Within days, Cal and his parents leave Brooklyn for hot and humid Houston.
With the entire nation desperate for any new information about the astronauts, Cal finds himself thrust in the middle of a media circus. Suddenly his life is more like a reality TV show, with his constantly bickering parents struggling with their roles as the “perfect American family.”
And then Cal meets Leon, whose mother is another astronaut on the mission, and he finds himself falling head over heels—and fast. They become an oasis for each other amid the craziness of this whole experience. As their relationship grows, so does the frenzy surrounding the Mars mission, and when secrets are revealed about ulterior motives of the program, Cal must find a way to get to the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.
There is a lot happening in this book. It touches on family dynamics, a sense of community, complicated friendships, the power of the media, death and mental illness, all wrapped up in a story about young love. Some of it was done really well and other parts were glossed over a bit, but all in all, Stamper created a believable, interesting world that you don’t often see in literature.
The strongest part of the novel for me is Cal’s relationship with is parents. His mother suffers from a mild, but still life-affecting, case of mental illness, his father so focused on becoming an astronaut that nothing else matters, and yet you see how they come together as family to understand what everyone needs in order to thrive. There was no cheesy my-parent-is-my-best-friend, which we often see in YA, there was also no absentee or abusive relationship, which was refreshing as well. I loved getting to know the family and really feeling for all of them.
Stamper had a way of explaining the space program in digestible pieces for anyone, whether you’re a big fan like I am, or someone who isn’t interested in it at all. He did something similar in his depiction of the media: You got to see the good and the bad and how it can affect different people in different ways. He also really drove home that you shouldn’t necessarily trust everything that you see/read and the bias that the media presents—all of which I think is super important for the young readers of today. Social media has become a beast that is hard to tame, and with the younger generation being so plugged in all the time, messages like these are important.
My least favourite part of the book, unfortunately, was the relationship between Cal and Leon. Though I did appreciate the fact that Leon also suffered from a mental illness (and it was done well, in my opinion), I just couldn’t believe the chemistry between the characters…and especially how fast it progressed. I know it’s a book, and I know love at first sight can be a thing, but so much of Cal’s time was spent thinking about Leon that I found it distracting from the rest of the story. I honestly wished we learned more about Leon’s family dynamic and more about the rest of plot. I would have been just as (if not more) satisfied if Leon and Cal were just friends. The love story added nothing for me.
All that being said, I predict this will not be the only novel we see by Phil Stamper. This is a great debut that touches on a lot of topics that I really enjoyed…and I can’t wait to see what he thinks up next.
“Astronaut. You know how sometimes you say a word so often it loses its meaning? That doesn’t happen. The definition sticks in my brain—and it’s even in the etymology. Astro-naut. Space explorer.” —Phil Stamper, The Gravity of Us
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the advanced copy, and to SpaceX on Unsplash for the featured photo of the rocket launch.