Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
With Radio Silence, Alice Oseman accomplishes the literary equivalent of knocking me over with a feather. I’d heard some good things about this book from people whose opinions I trust, yet still … I wasn’t expecting it to be this good. This captivating. Most importantly, this book has such strong portrayals of friendships, both platonic and romantic, and I love it so much.
Our protagonist is Frances Janvier. Head Girl at her school, on paper she is a star student: she has her UCAS statement all done, is on track to go to Cambridge, and just needs to ace these AS-level exams. In real life, of course, things are more complicated. She isn’t feeling all that connected to her school friends—they see her as a “study machine” more than the art-loving nerd she is. So Frances finds solace in an anonymous YouTube podcast called Universe City. And then she finds Aled.
This is a love story, but it’s not a love story. And Oseman would have won me over if that were the only thing I liked about this book.
This is still a love story, though, because Frances does love Aled, platonically, and he loves her back. It’s a love story because of Aled and Daniel’s complicated relationship. It’s a love story because of Frances and her mom, and in spite of Aled and Carys’ mom.
Indeed, there are so many great relationships in this book, I just want to break them down one by one.
Let’s start with the most obvious: Frances and Aled. Frances and Aled do not fall “in love”, and I love it. I’m tired of narratives where girl-meets-boy and they become friends and then they become “more than friends”. I want more narratives where friendship is enough. Because friendship is enough:
Everything with Aled was fun or good. Usually both. We started to realise that it didn’t matter what we did together, because we knew that if we were both there, we would have a good time.
Uggggh, this passage perfectly describes the way I feel about me and one of my friends. With some friends, you enjoy very specific things together; with others, you enjoy a variety of activities. And then there are some where the very act of being together is itself sufficient, and the activities are really just a bonus.
And I love that Oseman very clearly rules out romance. When Frances’ mother asks Frances if she likes Aled, Frances replies, “That’s a random question,” like it’s weird that her mother is even asking. I love this, because not only does it avert the romance trope, but it actively subverts the normalization of teenage hetero couplings. But if that isn’t enough, on the very next page, Frances reassures us in no uncertain terms that she and Aled don’t end up together. The book basically spoils itself!
Frances and Aled’s relationship isn’t always smooth, of course, and I like that too. This isn’t a fairy tale. Aled goes through some very rough experiences, including his mom’s outright abusive behaviour. I appreciate how Oseman approaches the complicated nature of these issues, the way she shows both Frances and Aled reacting and behaving just like the young, flawed human beings they are.
On a related note, the use of texting is stellar in this book. We see conversations between Frances and Aled, as well as between Frances and Raine. In both cases, I think Oseman nails the tone and diction and voice of certain types of texters. These conversations sound similar to how I converse with some of my friends via text (with some variation given my older age and penchant for grammatical sentences, even in text messages…). They sound quite genuine. This is difficult to do with texting in books sometimes.
Speaking of Raine, can we stop and appreciate her for a moment? Let’s do it.
Raine is my favourite character. She comes out of left field, just another minor background character at first, someone you can easily dismiss. Yet her presence just grows, slowly, until the sheer force of her will cannot be denied. She embodies the friend who is just there for you, no questions asked, no complaints. And then that climax, where she sees what Aled’s mom is trying to pull and she just takes charge and orders everyone else into the car so they can speed off to the station. Time and again, Raine proves herself both badass and awesome. I’d read more of her story.
A close second for favourite character is Frances’ mother. Oseman does something very interesting here. Frances’ mother acts as a kind of foil to Carol’s obviously horrible abuse. As terrible and messed up as Aled’s relationship with Carol is, Frances’ relationship with her mother is just all sorts of positive. Firstly, her mother is permissive and often complicit in some of Frances’ adolescent boundary-pushing—but never in the “I’m a cool mom” way, only in the “better that I know what/where/when than that you go around behind my back” kind of way. Frances’ mom is there for her, is supportive of her, is always ready to offer advice or ask questions. If anything, one might critique her character for being a little too one-dimensional in this regard. But that circles back to how she is a counterpart to Carol, I think, who is also somewhat one-note. Through Frances’ mom, Oseman includes a valuable example of a healthy mother-child relationship as contrast to the very unhealthy one that serves as some of the conflict for the last part of the book.
I’ve focused mostly on character in this review and not so much on plot, because honestly, the plot receded so much in my mind after I finished the book. What matters to this story is the way the characters interact with each other. There is a plot—several, in fact, and they are good. I love that Frances doesn’t get into Cambridge, that she has to deal with this set-back only to decide that maybe it’s actually for the best. I love that Frances gets some closure with Carys, discovering that Carys is, in fact, just a person and not this symbol that Frances might have turned her into in Frances’ mind. I love that the story ends on a hopeful note: it’s a happily ever after (at least for now).
There are queer characters here too, but their queerness is not in and of itself the story. Frances’ bisexuality is a part of her, something that informs her memory of Carys, but this is not a story of her coming out or coming to “accept” herself. Similarly, Aled’s demisexuality runs throughout the book. Oseman shows us how ace-spec people can be in relationships, and how Aled and Daniel’s relationship isn’t complicated so much because one of them is demi and the other is gay but because they’ve known each other for so long that they never really had proper conversations about it. Yet, as with Frances’ sexuality, Aled’s is not a main part of the book. This is not something that is easily resolved, tied up neatly, because that wouldn’t be fair. Sex and sexuality are complicated, and orientation and identity are not the same as behaviour, and Oseman acknowledges that by just showing the characters trying to figure things out, one step at a time.
Radio Silence is masterful. It goes to some dark places, but even in those dark moments, there is a core of hope and an unrelenting steel to Oseman’s writing. She creates characters and breathes life into their actions, makes them feel like real people, and shows time and again the value of friendships of all shades. This was a valuable read for me, and I hope, too, for many others.