So I had to read Our Own Private Universe in the space of a single morning. It was due that same day at the library, no renewal permitted because someone had it on hold (good for them!), and because I've broken my elbow, I can't drive, so I had to have it done in time for my mom to drop it off at the library when we went shopping that afternoon. Challenge accepted, but oh wow, does it ever mess with your emotions when you try to read a roller coaster of a book like this in a few hours.
Aki is an adolescent Black girl who, as the book opens, is already fairly certain she's bisexual. Nevertheless, she is inexperienced—and this is the summer she wants to change that. On a church mission to Mexico to help build a new church there, she and her best friend, Lori, make a pact: each of them will have a “fling” that summer. They'll find someone and make out three times—exactly three, like the counting of the Holy Hand Grenade. Aki has already found the object of her affection: Christa, who likes girls and also seems to like Aki quite a bit. This trip seems like the perfect setting for them to fool around and for Aki to explore her sexuality and romantic side, if she and Christa can sneak off enough together.
I have so much praise for Robin Talley’s handling here of how to discuss sexual and romantic orientation. Not only does she mention asexuality casually as a thing that exists in the same breath as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, etc., but later in the book she also mentions split attraction and the idea that one could be bisexual yet homoromantic or whatnot. In short, Talley’s queer representation is somewhat narrow on the page—in addition to Aki and Christa, there are at least two other characters who identify as lesbian and gay, respectively—yet it’s very inclusive in its terms and language. Similarly, Talley’s characters are cool with the idea that you can explore and alter the labels of your identity as you learn more about yourself. Our Own Private Universe is like a pool of receptive, buoyant water that will take you in and accept you for who you are.
There are also delightful scenes where Aki tries to figure out the, uh, mechanics of sapphic sex, as well as acquire the necessaries for safe sex, and it's pretty adorable. I’m all for books, particularly YA books, particularly queer YA books, portraying these considerations and also making it clear that it’s so OK to have questions about how to do it right and do it safely. Considering that so many places in the world don’t actually care to educate children properly about this issue … well, fictional novels are not and should never be considered a good replacement for proper education, but at least they can normalize these kinds of feelings in teens. It’s OK to have questions! You shouldn’t be expected to just know!
Similarly, I appreciate how Talley handles Aki coming out to various people on the trip. Readers deserve such diversity of queer stories, some of which shouldn't involve coming out narratives at all—but those that do should also be diverse. Aki is understandably apprehensive about how her identity will be received by her parents, her brother, her friends and peers. And I think Talley does a good job of presenting a coming out subplot that is realistic and compassionate, replete with acceptance as well as rough parts that are the result not simply of bigotry but also pigheaded adolescent malevolence. That being said, through Christa’s backstory Talley takes a moment to remind us that not every family will be supportive of their queer children.
There are other stories happening here too, which is another plus for this novel. Aki’s brother has his own struggles unrelated to sexuality or romance. Aki and Lori have a rough time of things, and I do appreciate stories that portray the ups and downs of best friendship too. That being said—here’s where I put my criticism hat on—that was one of the least fulfilling parts of this book for me. Despite all the depth with which Talley portrays her main character’s journey of introspection and self-discovery, so many of the other relationships in this book are flattened and fall by the wayside. The quarrel and reconciliation between Aki and Lori is too generic and too quick, respectively.
Talley’s handling of race could also use more nuance. I like that she explicitly identifies white characters as white, which subverts white as the default. Similarly, I like that Aki herself is initially somewhat hesitant to try Mexican cuisine, demonstrating that we all have our foibles and hang ups. And while I don’t want to stray from my lane and comment too much on Aki’s portrayal as a Black woman … there were a couple of things that made me blink. There’s this offhand comment about how much people love to touch Black women’s hair—I think Talley is trying to be educational in that respect? But it’s just kind of left there, with no real action attached to it? Likewise, when they are dividing up debate topics and the topic of police brutality comes up, none of the Black characters present seem to bat an eye or speak about the issue in anything less than a generic way.
Our Own Private Universe is beautiful. It made me cry. It’s not a perfect story; its plot and some of its characterization is forced or flat or otherwise less than amazing. Yet its themes and the compassion with which Talley explores them is so deeply moving. I sped through this book out of necessity, but it has definitely stuck with me. It made me think of memories entirely unrelated to this book or its issues but simply because they are connected to deep and true feelings of friendship for me. Isn’t that what good literature should make us do—think and feel and question and do? Every book is its own private universe, and I hope lots of teenagers read this book and find answers and ideas and questions within these pages.