This review contains minor spoilers.
We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.
The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.
The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.
Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.
Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.
Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.
There is danger and action and heroism.
Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him. And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.”
It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.
There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.
I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet. Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact. This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.
Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.
This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.