I’m by no means a connoisseur of young adult literature. Don’t mistake me: I’ve enjoyed my share of reads within the genre. Annette Curtis Klaus’s Blood and Chocolate was a favorite during my teen years, and a novel I’ve reread once
twice thrice in my adulthood. The Divergent, Chemical Garden, and Hunger Games trilogies all made my list of enjoyable reads. But styling myself a YA expert would be a step too far.
Nevertheless, Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s The Square Root of Summer seems to my limited experience a novel that distinguishes itself within the YA crowd.
Firstly, Square Root‘s protagonist–Gottie Oppenheimer–is a physics-and-math prodigy, making this book a winner for scientifically inclined ladies, and those passionate about female participation in STEM fields. As mentioned, my knowledge of YA’s offerings isn’t encyclopedic. But of what I have read, few books have offered me a “sciency” sort of girl. By featuring a heroine with Gottie’s intellectual savvy, Square Root acquires a fresh edge. Also supplementing the novel’s unique vibe are Gottie’s hand-drawn diagrams of scientific principles; scattered through the text, these illustrations lend Square Root a slightly-zany, grown-up-picture-book feel.
The novel’s basic plot is this: during a summer marked by love and grief (a childhood friend returns after his years-long absence, and Gottie mourns the death of her beloved grandfather), wormholes to Gottie’s past begin dissolving spacetime in her quaint seaside town. The scientific concepts underlying this time travel plot, at least as explained by Gottie, seem to make sense (though I understand that at least one of the novel’s scientific principles–the Weltschmerzian Exception–is an invention by Hapgood, perhaps inspired by the German word for melancholy and world-weariness: Weltschmerz). Hapgood excels at breaking complex scientific concepts into digestible chunks that don’t inhibit the book’s conversational tone. That being said, I’m not my brilliant father-in-law (physics/chemistry/mathematics/astronomy teacher extraordinaire); thus I can’t assess how well the science within this novel holds up to scrutiny. But I’d be curious to know if these scientific concepts–real and imagined–hold up cohesively when examined by a scientific eye. (If you have any thoughts/theories, please share in the comments below!)
Square Root‘s ultimate explanation for these wormholes is more emotive than scientific. But that’s not a fault in the novel; it’s a question of genre. If you’re looking for a rigorously researched sci-fi novel, this isn’t that. It’s a contemporary novel exploring love and loss, with a dash of whatever the scientific equivalent of magical-realism is. This combination gives the novel a balance of brains, beauty, and poignancy.
The novel has two additional features to recommend it: no.1, a superb ensemble cast, and no.2, deft avoidance of melodrama.
No.1: Gottie is surrounded by a motley crew. From her hippy grandfather Gray to her daydreaming German father, the novel’s secondary characters feel like real people: flawed, unique, extraordinary in their little habits. This lends the novel a roundness some YA books lack.
No.2: With the novel’s focus on grief, it’d be all-too-easy for it to become a melodrama. This danger is especially real as the novel is a first person narrative. Given the reader’s immersion in a grieving person’s head, a deft hand is required to ensure such grief doesn’t overwhelm the novel, making it a drag to read. But Gottie’s quirkiness and resilience saves the book, so the theme becomes one of a person tackling grief, rather than succumbing to it.
So would I recommend Square Root? If you’re hunting for sci-fi, look elsewhere. If you’re after a speedy YA read with a dash of the unique and a shade of depth, this could be your book.
*Received Advanced Readers Copy for the purposes of review