We’ve often come across opinions about adult readers being a target audience for young adult books or not. Of course, the demographic is meant for the young readers but with the growing space for more YA books, a lot of stories might read like it’s meant for those who were teenagers. While all sorts of such stories can be great or dismissable, it’s always a surprise to see a YA book that actually gives space for teenage characters to be impulsive, true, and somewhat problematic—basically, young. This debut is one such surprise that is definitely worth picking up but doesn’t completely impress.

Alexis (Black) wants to get away from what her life offers at the moment: a drug-addict mother, shootings that are the norm, and an area where Black people are always living under the threat of being shot by the cops. She does have a plan: play basketball and get a scholarship which can help her escape from this mess to a better life. But when an accident takes away everything from her, especially her dream of playing basketball and that scholarship, she is left with something already scarce in her life: hope. Aamani Chakrabarti (Indian American) is the new kid at her school and seems like the light that can show Alexis the way forward. She is intelligent and witty, and shows Alexis that more than just one path can lead to her dreams—prompting Alexis to join her STEM team. What unfolds is a journey where Alexis learns the newfound way to freedom and Aamani helps her with studying and quizzes.

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The simplistic writing is easy to read but the plot doesn’t offer anything too refreshing and each subplot often turns too character-oriented. But in terms of the very same characterisation, Bush definitely creates a personality that makes space for growth while excellently exploring themes of poverty, neglect, gangs, drug abuse, unsafe neighbourhoods, living on the streets, and moving out of the systematically enforced confinements. The chaos experienced by Alexis is greatly unwrapped in contrast to the sequences at school where Aamani and her group of friends—a diverse cast including bisexual and gay teens, a Muslim girl, and a neurodivergent boy—give her an opportunity to not be defined by her past but by what the future holds for her. Not an easy read (and not just because the plot doesn’t have major turns to keep one’s attention intact) for the blatant racism, internalised homophobia, and significant slurs that filled the page, but definitely an important one in terms of character growth.

Speaking of which, Every Variable of Us also tests its readers for how long they can give Alexis a chance to be impulsive, wrong, messy, and flawed before the story truly brings justice and righteous change to her. Whether it’s the “not like other girls” attitude she carries as a sportsgirl confident in her skills or the subsequent judgement she passes for the “nerds” and makeup-wearing girls around; whether it’s her outright racist description of Aamani’s desi lunch toward the start or an implied steamy scene between the two while a third character sleeps in the same room. Some of it is a mess but also realistic. Sure, comments made by other characters like a guy who undermines the #MeToo movement through an insensitive comment or a drug dealer who labels every brown kid as a terrorist, can be critcised as a reader but there’s no doubt it aids in making the novel exactly what it means to be: raw.

Of course, as a desi myself, I did judge Aamani when she said her favourite film is Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and the Hindi dialogues were too translationary but the effort made by the author to show her as someone grown up in the Indian culture as a Hindu is quite praise-worthy—definitely stereotypical in some places but at this point, I truly don’t expect too much from non-desi authors. The sapphic relationship takes time to unfold but doesn’t emotionally move past the best-friendship vibe that it gives off at the beginning or throughout. The individual queer journeys, on the other hand, are well explored as Aamani acknowledges coming out to her Indian American parents and not being disowned but also not being accepted with that identity, or how Alexis grows from her own homophobia and allows herself a possibility, followed by her searching for “Black queer people” on Google—a small step but the first one nonetheless.

Every Variable of Us, Charles A. Bush
North Star Editions, March 2022

Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.

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