What if falling in love meant the end of the world?
For 17-year-old time traveller Prenna James, it does – literally.
The Here and Now, a new romantic thriller for young adults by Ann Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants), spins a fast-paced story of a high school couple trying to save the world. It’s a love story and an adventure, spiced with a touch of time travel and dire visions of a dystopian future, with a powerful ending that echoes on in your mind when you’ve closed the last page.
Follow the rules. Remember what happened. Never fall in love.Because 17-year-old Prenna is not your typical New York immigrant kid – she came from the future.
The world that time-travelling Prenna grew up in, half a century from now, is a true dystopia where famine and disease are killing off the people of a badly ravaged planet.
She and her mother live – in the here and now – in a cult-like community under constant surveillance by their leaders and “counsellors,” disabled by mysterious pills, trained by television to pass as “time natives,” and drilled repeatedly on a set of twelve unbreakable rules.
Prenna toes the line, more or less. But the people in power don’t seem to be doing anything to try to make a better future – the whole reason for their travelling back in time, in theory. Her father is absent, as he mysteriously disappeared the night before the group made its trek back in time. Her mother, a doctor, has clearly checked out emotionally. It’s a fairly grey existence, but at least they’re alive.
Then along comes Ethan Jarves.
As romantic heroes of high school age go, Ethan would have set this girl’s pulse racing. He’s funny and kind and just a little bit nerdy in all the right ways. But he’s also a “time native” – and an intimate relationship between natives and travellers is strictly forbidden to time travellers like Prenna.
(Rule number 12.)
Ann Brashares handles the budding romance with a fine understanding of the elaborate advance-and-retreat circling of teen courtship rituals, the balance of fear and thrill that underscores a strong attraction between a boy and girl from radically different backgrounds.
And of course Prenna is forbidden by the rules of her community to tell Ethan anything about her past.
(Rule number 5.)
I devoured the book in two sessions – Brashares’ pacing is superb – then sat with it and thought about the story. And the more it rolled around in memory, the more layers emerged.
There’s a rather thoughtful bass note throughout the book that invites us to think about a few tough questions without easy answers, like the difference between lies intended to protect and lies told to cause harm. It’s more subtle than some of the other “lessons” woven through the plot, and I think the more powerful because it’s not hammered home.
Much more clearly stated (inevitably so, as the plot hinges on it) is a warning of the risks of continuing on mankind’s current path of unbridled consumption. And then there’s the message of self-denial in the service of a greater good – you can’t always get what you want, right here, right now, the way things are.
And throughout there’s also the pressing question of which rules a person should keep, and which rules can be kicked to the curb by a couple of teenage rebels on a mission to save the world.
Heavy stuff, yes, but Brashares is far too savvy a writer to preach. The big message, that some things are more important than one individual’s impulsive self-indulgence, comes to us through the characters and actions of Prenna and Ethan themselves – two convincing characters you quickly come to like and hope, profoundly, that the author will let them stay together. Or, at least, let them stay alive.
I don’t really write with the idea of trying to teach any lessons. I want to tell a story as truthfully and engagingly as I can, and then let the chips fall where they may.Ann Brashares
Fair warning, readers who are looking for a strong element of sci-fiction will be disappointed in The Here and Now as Brashares neatly glosses over the mechanics of time travel. Personally, I’m just fine with that. After all, this isn’t Dr. Who and the time travelling itself is not the thrust of the story – rather, it’s the means by which the situation is made possible.
Similarly, readers who are looking for another chapter in Ann Brashares’ blockbuster young-adult fiction series, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, will not find it in this novel. The Here and Now is quite different from other books she’s published to date – perhaps the closest might be My Name Is Memory, although that’s intended for a slightly older audience (generally it’s listed as an adult novel) and it deals with the quite different themes of reincarnation and the quest for lost love. Best to shake off any preconceptions about what to expect from this author, in other words, and just dive into this novel on its own merits.
So, is it believable, that a couple of teenagers would take on the challenge of trying to save the world?
Of course it is. Young adults are fully aware that they’ll inherit the world that’s being shaped now, and we don’t have to look far to find the feisty teens who aren’t content to sit back on the couch while the future unfolds.
Okay, so maybe your average teenagers aren’t out saving the world by tracking down a renegade time traveller bent on killing an energy-research scientist and destroying her life’s work… but while I was reading The Here and Now, the world Brashares created on the page was every bit as real and compelling as the world outside my window.
Bottom line: Four stars. It’s fresh, well written, and crafted by one of the finest American storytellers writing in the young adult field today. Now, I don’t claim you’ll want to return to this novel time and again, the way some books need re-reading every few years or so, but among the field of YA novels out this spring, this one earns a place on the list.
If you’re looking for a good lively and thought-provoking story that both a teen girl and her mother will enjoy (and maybe talk about together afterwards), The Here and Now by Ann Bashares gets the seal of approval from the females in this family.
The Here and Now
Teen / Young Adult Fiction (age 12 and up)
Release date April 8, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-73680-0 (hardover); 978-0-307-97615-4 (e-book); also available as an audio book.
Advance review copy of this title was courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher.