This is a very charming and endearing book, which is good, because it is also implausible and silly and so otherwise it would be terrible. Afterworlds is a very tongue-in-cheek novel about writing and publishing novels, with a novel within the novel, because yo dawg, I heard you like novels in your novels so I novelled a novel novel for you. Novel novel novel….
Darcy Patel is an eighteen-year-old high school graduate whose NaNoWriMo novel gets accepted for publication. She moves to New York (parents love that idea, not), gets an apartment way too expensive for her despite her six-figure advance, and struggles with rewrites while falling in love with fellow debut writer Imogen Gray. Along the way, Darcy discovers a literary community and tries to figure out who she wants to be as an author even as she hides from actually growing older as a person.
Like most writing about writers, Afterworlds is rather navel-gazing. What rescues it from mediocrity is the YA-twist Westerfeld puts on it. This isn’t some twenty-thirty-forty-something male writer with two days’ stubble working on the Great American novel and reflecting morosely on how no one seems to recognize his genius. Darcy is about as young and naive as it gets when it comes to, you know, actually living. She leans on her younger sister for budgetary help, and her naivety in negotiating her first relationship is a constant source of tension in an otherwise effortless life with Imogen. And even if the premise of an eighteen-year-old getting a novel she wrote in thirty days accepted for publication seems unlikely, Westerfeld delivers plenty of doses of reality, from the tight deadlines to the excruciating waiting to the exhaustion built around the transition from writer to published writer. There are quite a few lampshades hanging around by the end of the book, and it’s this self-awareness that makes Afterworlds work.
Alternating between Darcy’s story and chapters from her work (also called Afterworlds, probably just to make these reviews more confusing) is another fascinating twist on the typical novel about novelists. Lizzie’s story, albeit more fantastical than Darcy’s, is not quite as captivating—I kept wanting to get back to Darcy’s life, to see what happens next on her journey to becoming a published author. That might seem strange given that Lizzie turns into a reaper and can see ghosts! It comes down to the writing, though, and the fun Westerfeld must have had trying to make his writing seem less polished and “worse” when he writes as Darcy. The version of Darcy’s novel that we read is the final draft—we witness her agonizing over edits, particularly to the ending, throughout her side of the story—but even so the writing is rougher and less experienced that Westerfeld’s ordinary style. I hope this was fun for him and not, say, nerve-wracking in the extreme—but the result is great.
Afterworlds also reminds me of the immense joy of the writing process itself, and of its wondrous complex parts, from drafting to editing to copyediting. I don’t write fiction as much as I did when I was younger, but it’s not something I have ever or will ever give up. And reading Afterworlds inspired me to open up an old WIP and noodle around in it for a while. I can only image what it would do to members of its target audience who harbour writerly aspirations—and that can only be a good thing!
In the end, this is not an amazing novel (either of them), and it’s far from my favourite thing Westerfeld has done. But that’s OK. It has an interesting niche, and it was a lot of fun. I laughed at parts, and sighed a little bit when Imogen goes off on Darcy and tells her that Darcy is basically too young to understand how to handle love—because it’s both true but also very harsh, and it’s a sharp demonstration of how we wound those who are closest to us. By far my favourite character has to be Nisha, Darcy’s smart-as-a-whip sardonic sister:
“Just numbers?” Nisha snorted, and her face took on a look of adamantine certainty. “The universe is math on fire, Patel. That’s my faith.”
So much yes!