Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This was a birthday book from my friend Rebecca, who smartly picked it off my mammoth to-read list. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is not a book for me. It’s awesome to see Deaf and queer characters represented in fiction and particularly YA, and for what it’s worth as a “hearie” commenting on this, I really enjoyed the way that the Deaf characters’ communication was portrayed here. Nevertheless, Julia never clicks for me as a protagonist, and I had trouble getting traction with this book.
Julia Prasad is a Deaf girl of colour whose love of street art gets her kicked out of her school for vandalism. Forced to go to a mainstream/hearing school, Julia faces some of the challenges one might expect—as well as other ones, like how to channel her creativity when her outlet is denied her, and how to deal with the fact that Jordyn, the girl she thought of as her best friend, might not be much of a friend at all. Julia is very angry, and You're Welcome, Universe is an ode to teenage angst from Whitney Gardner.
Here are a few things I did like about this book: Julia’s relationships with her moms; her friendship and romance(?) with YP; her awkward flirtation with Donovan; the weirdness with her teacher Mr. Katz and Casey.
I’m still really on the lookout for more YA that doesn’t involve romance (and it’s out there, for sure, and I have certainly read some), but I don’t think this is one. Although there is some ambiguity here, I read Julia and YP’s relationship as romantic, or at least, there are undertones of romantic attraction there. I like that Gardner keeps it ambiguous, both for those of us who are more interested in reading about platonic friendships and because I think it admirably demonstrates the messiness of relationships, especially the furious, fast-paced relationships formed during adolescence. Julia and YP’s relationship may not be as simply binary as platonic/romantic. They don’t need a label yet—maybe they’ll never have one, or maybe they’ll modulate between platonic and romantic attractions until they find whatever balance works for them. It’s cool, and it’s nice to see this ambiguity depicted in fiction—though, perhaps more explicit discussion of it might be better.
This is why I enjoyed Julia’s awkward, frustrated flirtation with Donovan. It captures how difficult it is for someone who is markedly different—in this case, Julia’s Deafness—to navigate these types of social spaces. Gardner comments on how Jordyn’s cochlear implants allow her to better assimilate into the hearie spaces and thus, eventually, net Donovan. Who is a total cad anyway, so good riddance to both of them.
As much as I wanted to like the Julia/Jordyn subplot, though, nothing about it works for me. I love the idea that Jordyn is a bad friend who only uses Julia and that Julia needs to realize this and move on, but the actual execution feels so flawed. The subplot keeps fading away into the background, and then just when I think we’re done with it, it comes back. And then at the end we get a final resolution that is probably supposed to feel triumphant but actually just seems contrived and formulaic. I think my dissatisfaction is rooted in the fact that, other than a brief text conversation near the beginning of the book, we don’t get much interaction between Jordyn and Julia before the latter starts at her new school. It’s hard to understand this faux friendship when we never really see them talk.
Fortunately, there are some other good character dynamics here. Julia’s resentment of Casey, and then the relationship that Casey develops with Julia’s art teacher, is really interesting. I like that Julia eventually realizes that she has to make amends to people she has wronged, and that Katz and Casey are two of those people. It’s a small sign of maturity from a character whose immaturity otherwise leaves me rather cold for most of the novel.
I’m seeing a few people comment on how they couldn’t connect with Julia, or didn’t like her as a protagonist, because she’s so “angry.” I understand where that critique is coming from but kind of want to avoid that language, because it seems very problematic to me to criticize a young, marginalized woman for her “anger.” Honestly, Julia has every right to be angry at a world and society that is difficult for her to live in. While I can’t understand that anger as a lived experience, I comprehend how she uses her street art as an outlet for expressing herself in a way that nothing else satisfies.
My issue with Julia is more around her voice, and the way that her anger tends to manifest as angst. There were some warning signs, for me, quite early on that I wasn’t going to love this book. We start with Julia being caught and expelled for covering up some earlier vandalism on the school grounds—and Gardner is quite sparse with the exposition. Normally, I like that, but at each turn I was expecting Julia to slow down at some point and give us a little more background, and she never really does. The story just keeps lurching from chapter to chapter, event to event, with very time for pause. It isn’t until near the climax of the story that Julia seems to seriously consider whether she might be doing something wrong, and by then I feel like it’s too little, too late, from a character-development point of view.
So that’s where I’m at with You’re Welcome Universe. It has interesting ideas, a healthy amount of diversity in its characters, and some great moments. I can see how hard it tries to make some good, interesting points about growing up, especially growing up while marginalized and different from one’s peers. Stylistically and narratively, though, it doesn’t work for me.