The other day I was talking about bookish dealbreakers, and for each one of those there are multiple exceptions. For example, one of my top dealbreakers is a plot that involves babies. Well, add this one to the exception list that previously held just The Bean Trees. Despite the fact that the teens within The Paradox of Vertical Flight make almost exclusively horrible decisions and the fact that the plot revolves around a baby, I loved it, because of the vibrant realism, humor and brilliant audio performance.
Even though the plot of The Paradox of Vertical Flight seems like something I should loathe, Emil Ostrovski hits just the right notes. Sort of like how It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia should be terrible, but the writing and characters are so on point that it works. Jack is by no means someone I would be friends with in real life, but he does feel a hundred percent like someone I might meet in the real world, and the relationships he shares with his son, ex-girlfriend, best friend, and grandmother are touchingly lifelike.
Ostrovski doesn’t romanticize anything in The Paradox of Vertical Flight. Jack’s been going through a crisis, wherein he feels lonely and lacking in attention. He’s thinking about the possibility of ALMOST committing suicide when the phone rings and Jess, his ex, asks him to come to the hospital where she’s having her (their) baby. Though Jack wanted her to abort the child, he goes. Everything changes the moment he actually sees the kid, and he suddenly finds himself unable to turn the child over to the adopting parents and sort of kidnaps the baby, who he names Socrates.
From the get go, it’s pretty obvious that Jack sucks at making decisions. Committing suicide is not a good way to get attention and kidnapping a baby is not going to end well either. Still, now that he sees this little person he helped create, he needs more. Though the fact that he regretted wanting Jess to have an abortion, the book really didn’t feel preachy or anything; it just felt like his own experience, and I like that Ostrovski hit on some rarely tackled themes ESPECIALLY from a male POV.
Jack ends up calling on his best friend, Tommy, and Jess, and they all head on this ill-fated road trip to Jack’s grandmother’s place. Along the way, they’re chased by cops, befriend a homeless guy, and crash both a car and a boat, among other adventures. The baby’s situation is so precarious that even I am frequently concerned, because, much as I don’t like them anywhere near ME, I really do not wish babies harm.
The conversations on the road trip are the best part, as they always are. Jack and Tommy have this great buddy vibe, where they sort of flirt with each other in a joking way all the time. I love this, because pretty much all of the good guy friends I have flirt with each other, even though they’re all straight. They discuss things like Pokemon and Grand Theft Auto, and generally feel like teen boys. Also, there’s a plot line about the way they’ve been drifting apart, as Tommy switched schools and then enlisted, that’s really powerful.
Jess and Jack have a more complicated relationship. They had a sort of summer fling, but Jess is older and at college, so they drifted apart. Now, though, there’s this whole baby thing. What I like is that they both clearly still have feelings for one another, but that they’re not entirely sure what those feelings are and that they’re not shoved into some sort of unrealistic HEA. Another pet peeve of mine in books is terms of endearment, which are actually used to great effect here. When they fight, Jess and Jack call each other things like “darling,” which was always hilarious.
There’s also this quirky element where Jack has a lot of conversations with Socrates about philosophy. Jack aspires to being a philosopher one day and imagines his baby will turn out the same way. Using the socratic method, he helps himself cope by imagining a larger relationship with his baby. These conversations help Jack feel like this three day road trip will have an impact on who Socrates grows up to be.
Then there’s Jack’s grandmother, who’s suffering from dementia, slowly losing her memories. Jack manages to catch her on a good day, and she teaches him a last lesson about telling people how much you love them and making sure to say good bye. It’s heartbreaking and sweet and emotionally resonant. It made me all misty.
What Left Me Wanting More:
All of that, I loved. However, some of the plot elements went a bit over the top and the framing element was a bit boring. At the beginning and end of the novel, a middle-aged Jack is telling his eighteen year old son the story of his first couple of days. It’s not bad, but I didn’t feel as connected to middle-aged Jack.
Then there’s the fact that Jack knew so little about babies that it sort of made my head explode. I was never around babies as a child, but even I had the most basic ideas of the mechanics. Jack literally has to ask someone what babies eat. I MEAN, COME ON. I also didn’t care for quite how crazy the adventure got. The whole thing was a bad idea, but the fact that they got wasted on a boat with the baby was overkill.
The Final Verdict:
Any time a book can make me really love subject matter I generally avoid, I am impressed. Ostrovski’s debut is full of wit, heart and philosophy. The audiobook, especially, I recommend because MacLeod Andrews does a brilliant job with the narration, getting the characters down perfectly.