I was not expecting to fall for this book quite as hard as I did. If you asked me how Earth Girl ended up on my to-read list, I could not tell you. But my library had a copy (I love my library!). The description is lacklustre and didn’t make me too excited, but within a few pages I was on Jarra’s side, and within about 3 chapters I was loving this book. It made me giddy, at points … I think that might have been how much this book was a needed, escapist story right now.
Jarra is turning 18 and has decided to study pre-history—that is, the history of humanity before it spread out amongst the stars in the Exodus, thanks to portal technology. However, Jarra is also an ape—or, in less pejorative terms, Handicapped. She lost the genetic lottery, and her immune system cannot handle non-Earth worlds, even for a minute. As a result, Jarra can never leave Earth and faces discrimination from the “norms” who visit this planet—including the rest of her university class, because Jarra stubbornly decides to go to an off-world university, which holds all of its first-year courses on Earth.
Let’s start with the uncomfortable thing: Jarra is a Mary Sue. She has a chip on her shoulder the size of the planet, but she cleverly turns this to her advantage, posing as a Military kid to explain her lack of origin from any of the settled interstellar sectors. Her experience on other Earth dig sites means she quickly rises in the esteem of her professor and then her peers, and although we are repeatedly told to expect some kind of drama and blowback when they find out she is an ape, we are simultaneously told how amazing everyone thinks she is. Jarra expertly leads a rescue! Jarra can fly a plane when not many others are qualified for that! Oooh, turns out Jarra’s lie about being Military isn’t such a lie after all….
I am not going to apologize for Jarra’s Mary Sueness. It’s a thing, and if it turns you off the book, I get it. I’m wary of reading the sequel because of this—I adored Jarra in this book because, despite the story itself being so intent on warping her life, she resolutely makes mistake after mistake and reflects and criticizes herself, and that is the kind of characterization I like to see. But I’m not sure her self-awareness can survive a sequel where apparently the fate of all humanity is in her hands? Yeah….
But if you can look the other way and get past Jarra’s Mary Sue-ness, then what’s left is a book that tries to explore how we make assumptions about others. Jarra’s professor is aware of her status, and at first he assumes that means she wants to make trouble, so he gives her a hard time. She doesn’t like him for this. But they gradually come to respect one another, and Janet Edwards puts a fair amount of effort into making this a dynamic and believable process. The same goes for Jarra’s relationships with her peers, particularly the love interest of the book. Although it isn’t exactly subtle (and this is lampshaded in the book itself, several times over, shifting cultural norms and all), the love story is an interesting subplot that really tests Jarra’s commitment to flying under the radar.
Towards the end of the book, things go off the rails. A tragedy causes Jarra to disassociate and actually believe her Military persona is true for a while. This … was weird. I did a double-take. I think what bothered me about it is the haphazard way Edwards had treated the subject of mental health up until that point—Jarra was distrustful of psychologists, while her best friend loved them, but overall Edwards hadn’t really discussed Jarra’s mental health or anyone else’s mental health in much detail. So for this kind of episode to take place without warning or explanation, it felt very contrived, just as its resolution felt sudden and convenient.
Indeed, my least favourite thing about Earth Girl is its ending. Edwards wraps everything up very quickly, with quite a lot accomplished off-page and then told to our protagonist after she wakes up, having been taken off the board Bella Swan–style (by being knocked unconscious). It’s a narrative bait-and-switch that I don’t appreciate, particularly when it comes to the much-anticipated, teased moment when Jarra’s peers learn that they have been learning next to—and from—an ape. I definitely feel cheated by that, and it’s why this book, despite being so fun for me, is not getting a higher rating.
In other words, Earth Girl is a mess from a literary standpoint—its protagonist is a delightful Mary Sue, and its plot is a convolution of predictable and unpredictable (but contrived) ideas—yet somehow, it all comes together into one of the most compelling and enjoyable stories I’ve read this year. And you know what I say: story comes first. This is not a great novel, but it is a great and enjoyable story.