Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release: January 31, 2017
Source: Review copy from publisher
Fifteen-year-old Aki Hunter knows she’s bisexual, but up until now she's only dated guys—and her best friend, Lori, is the only person she’s out to. When she and Lori set off on a youth-group mission trip in a small Mexican town, it never crosses Aki's mind that there might be anyone in the group she’d be interested in dating. But that all goes out the window when Aki meets Christa.I've been hooked on Robin Talley's writing ever since I read an ARC of her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, three years ago. So when a copy of her most recent release showed up in my mailbox, I jumped at the chance to read and review it. And while I didn't end up loving Our Own Private Universe quite as much as the author's previous works, I found it to be enjoyable, cute, and educational, making it a solid addition to Talley's lineup of books about sexuality, gender, and self-discovery.
What truly makes Our Own Private Universe stand out is its honesty. The characters aren't perfect, and they aren't polished; they're real-life teenagers looking for a memorable summer and hitting some roadblocks all the way. Aki's point of view contains plenty of cliché, typical-teen lines ("my dad is so embarrassing" shows up more than once), and her story certainly doesn't lack a healthy dose of high school drama—although never to the point of gratuity. I've seen some reviews criticizing these aspects of Our Own Private Universe (and understandably so—some readers may end up occasionally annoyed by the younger-teen narration). But it's also important to remember that plenty of real teens speak and behave like Aki. There's nothing wrong with that, and they deserve stories as do cosmopolitan protagonists with poetry on the tip of their tongues.
Plus, just like teenagers in real life, the characters in this book consist of more than summer-romance lust and superficial arguments; they also talk about their religion and mission-trip volunteer work, debate public health and other issues, and more. Aki and her friends contain multitudes, and they're great reminders not to write off 15-year-olds just because they complain about their parents being a bit overbearing.
Best of all, the characters have real, lifelike, messy conversations about sexuality and identity, learning about both themselves and each other. Characters talk about the difference between being bi and pan and the difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. They discuss the fact that bisexual people can prefer one gender over others, hypothesize about how to label themselves, and learn about how to practice safe sex.
Along the way, of course, they make mistakes and express ideas that aren't always completely true, but always in the sake of learning. I don't identify as bi, so I can't specifically speak to the accuracy of any bisexuality representation, but to me, Aki's process of questioning her sexuality felt raw and relatable. Sometimes it seems as if Our Own Private Universe is trying a bit too hard to educate rather than simply tell a realistic story, but overall I deeply appreciated the message that it's perfectly okay to question your sexuality and explore different labels—no matter how old you are. Aki's story has the power to reassure readers, encourage them to further research different terms, or even provide them with a label that fits their feelings—and what could be more powerful than that?
Additionally, I appreciated the role religion plays in the characters' self-discovery and coming-out narratives. Since the story takes place on a youth group mission trip, every character comes from a Christian background, which impacts their openness (or lack thereof) about their identities. The characters' story arcs aren't completely cheerful and blissful (some church members are entirely accepting while others simply aren't), but the overall feeling is one of progress and hope. Our Own Private Universe features a fantastic cast of characters who largely use Christianity as a reason for inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and it strikes a dynamic balance between the progress that's been made in religious communities and the work that's yet to be done.
All in all, Our Own Private Universe charmed me with its summer romance, had me invested in its character development and ever-building interpersonal drama, and left me thankful for its representation of the sometimes-confusing process of questioning your sexuality. This story may not be for everyone, but I can envision it helping out some teenage readers—and at the very least, it features a cute and emotional f/f relationship. Aki and her friends make great additions to Talley's repertoire of characters who learn and grown throughout their stories, and I hope their tale finds its way into the hands of any teen who may benefit from it.