Fifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it's mostly about sex. No, it isn't that kind of theory. Aki already knows she's bisexual—even if, until now, it's mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too. Actually, Aki's theory is that she's got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she's got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It's time for her to actually do something. Or at least try. So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing. But it's not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you're in love? It's going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.
Our Own Private UniverseFeatured
A Solid Story of Teen Love
Fifteen-year-old Aki Simon is on a summer mission trip in Mexico with other members of her congregation—including her older brother and her dad (the youth group leader). She and her best friend, Lori, are the youngest of the group and only allowed along for the ride because adults in their lives are chaperones. Their church is joining others to help a community in need, and coming from a small school, Aki and Lori are excited to meet other teens. It should be noted that Aki is black and bisexual, but she’s still trying to figure out what being bisexual means.
Lori and Aki make a deal that the trip will be an adventure and an exploration beyond a new country and culture. The girls make a pact to hook up with someone while on the trip, and from night one, Aki embraces the challenge as she spies cute and edgy-looking Christa at the first gathering of all the youth groups.
OUR OWN PRIVATE UNIVERSE has so much potential, and there are many great moments in the book. First, it’s great to read a book in which a teen is exploring her sexuality in as open and honest a way as Aki does. Also, through the course of the story, Aki and the other teens examine some of the controversial topics of our times (gay marriage, war, climate change, international healthcare, etc.), but the overriding themes are trust and honesty. The difficulty in being honest both with yourself and with others is tied into every relationship and every conversation, and determining who to trust with those truths is part of that.
As a mom, I appreciate that part of the romance between Aki and Christa focuses on safe lesbian sex. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book—YA or otherwise—that managed that detail. The romance between Aki and Christa is sweet, but complicated, and it’s what drives the story. The book moves at a rather slow pace (as sweet romances sometimes do), and the teens in it are kind of annoying and add a whole lot of unnecessary drama. I couldn't really relate to any of the characters, and many of them were stereotypes. I was also disappointed that there wasn’t greater exploration of Aki’s other way of being an outsider—her race comes up in vague references, but it’s all way more shallow than I would have expected. The way the book looks at the various controversial issues is a plus, although it’s pretty obvious where the author’s views are on all of them. Things don’t get too preachy though, and I firmly agree with Talley's views on all of them!
I recommend OUR OWN PRIVATE UNVIVERSE to adults and teens who want an entry level (with some steamy scenes--fortunately well-written!) exploration of a romantic relationship between two teen girls. I have another book by Robin Talley on my bookshelf waiting to be read, and I’ll definitely move it up in my to-read pile. She writes well, and I appreciate her unflinching look topics that might cause others pause.
My thanks to YA Books Central and the publisher for an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.
An examination of what it is to be bisexual for a teen.
the book parents give their little queer girls
What I Loved:
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that modern teens are very political. Another truth: religious people are very political and regularly have high turnout for elections, which is why evangelicals have such immense voting power. Combine the two groups and you get Aki, Christa, and the other teens of the Holy Life mission trip to the wee little village of Mundanza in Mexico. They’re almost terrifying in their zeal for social justice and reform! Talley really gets what modern teens care about and shows them a great deal of respect. It’s honestly pretty inspiring.
Aki grows not just as a human being but as an activist, going from a closeted bi girl to a semi-open girl who has a major part in organizing a massive debate to help determine how their church’s delegate (aka her dad the minister) will vote on a variety of planks at an upcoming religious conference that determines the entire organization’s stances. She experiences both her first relationship and her first relationship with a girl, she learns to get over the fact she’s gonna have to ask someone for dental dams, and she learns more about her brother and father amidst all this. Though the romance is at the center of the book, the facets of Aki’s life aren’t neglected.
Talley doesn’t do any fade-to-black stuff for the sex Christa and Aki have, nor does she overuse euphemisms. All talk of sex between two girls and how to have it safely is very straightforward and the scenes of Christa and Aki together are never fetishistic. It’s two girls experiencing sex for the first time and learning how to express their feelings for one another through a physical act.
The novel doesn’t ignore how different Aki and Christa’s realities are either. Aki eventually comes out to her brother and father to complete acceptance; Christa can’t come out or be outed to her ultra-religious parents without fear of being kicked out. Though Aki is initially unhappy about this and thinks Christa cowardly, she comes to understand every QUILTBAG kid has their own unique circumstances. Some can be out and shove it in everyone’s faces (me), some can only be out to a select group of people, and some have to stay closeted until they are in a better situation. It even quickly acknowledges that queerness and racial-ethnic groups intersect in different ways!
What Left Me Wanting:
Sadly, the Holy Life mission trip that brings Christa and Aki together in the first place fades into the background. They build a church for the village of Mudanza, they paint some buildings, and Aki and Lori in particular make jewelry with the little girls. Criticism of short-term mission trips like the one in Our Own Private Universe typically centers on the lack of a concrete impact and that’s exactly the hole Aki’s Holy Life trip falls into. Though Aki leaves Mundanza a changed person, the Holy Life group didn’t really do anything lasting for Mundanza. Her experience is at the crux of the story, not what she does.
In a similar vein, the focus is one hundred percent on Christa and Aki exploring their sexuality together. Thanks to this, the entire novel moves slowly and it contributes to the erasure of the missionary work they’re supposedly doing in Mundanza. The girls might as well be at a Holy Life-organized religious summer camp for teens, not on an international mission trip. Such a camp would be a much better choice of setting; with very few tweaks, Aki’s growth as a human being would unfold in the same way. Then it might not feel like Mexico and its people are being used as a backdrop.
I read a brilliant article criticizing modern short-term mission trips, but I can’t find it after all these years. It came complete with a brilliant passage about an impoverished orphan girl taking the bracelet one teen missionary had given her and throwing it away with all the others she’d gotten from teen missionaries!
When puberty hit me like a bus covered in angry porcupines, my mom gave me her old copy of Forever… by Judy Blume, that classic heterosexual tale of two teens exploring love and sex together after they start dating. I never actually read it because it didn’t apply to me and I’m not entirely sure where that book is now. Anyway, Our Own Private Universe will one day be the book parents give their little queer girls so they can see themselves in fiction and learn how to have safe sex.
*sweet, complicated, and non-fetishized f/f romance that includes education on safe sex
*excellent character growth in Aki