Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a technique that uses intensifying levels of exposure to a stressful stimulus in order to work towards some goal, usually overcoming and acclimating to said stimulus, thus reworking the way one thinks. At least, that’s how I understand it, and it’s about as much fun to deal with as it sounds. However, Paula Stokes’ heartwarming, poignant and incredibly well written novel Girl Against the Universe transforms CBT into the spark for a romantic journey of self-discovery. Very well played.
Maguire Kelly has been through more than her fair share of tragedy and bad luck. A fatal car accident, a freak roller coaster crash and a myriad of smaller injury-causing incidents where she emerged unscathed have convinced her that she is cursed. Resolved to save those around her, Maguire isolates herself, avoiding public spaces and repeating a set of good luck practices throughout the day When a chance to learn more about her Irish family becomes a seemingly impossible plane ride away, Maguire takes control of her future with the help of a very patient therapist and a cute teen tennis star, Jordy, who has been damaged by the spotlight.
First and foremost, Girl Against the Universe is a stunningly honest depiction of mental illness. Maguire’s PTSD and anxiety jump off the page, feeling real and tangible as I navigated with her on her journey. Stokes takes anxiety and renders its emotional and physical so beautifully with words that are as inspiring as they are relatable. Anyone who has been through, is currently experiencing or knows someone who has been through PTSD or anxiety should read this book for a light-hearted yet thoughtful handling of the topic. I can see this book being a real conversation starter about mental illness, and I plan on recommending it to some of my friends.
Structure-wise, the novel was perfectly paced and a perfect length. The combination of chapters following Maguire’s life and her progress in therapy worked exceptionally well. The twists and turns were well timed. Each cliffhanger left me wanting more and turning the page. This novel was written in a way that reflected its stellar story, and was a joy to read from start to finish.
Character development is the strength of this novel. Maguire’s voice is one of the strongest, most lyrical, most honest voices I have encountered in YA. It was inspiring to find an ordinary girl narrator who was open to discovering her own inner power, and I found her to be equally relatable and likable. Jordy twists the average shallow teen sports star trope into a boy who is vulnerable, emotional and undeniably kind. It was a treat to watch their romance blossom and their eventual love for each other felt earned.
One of my favorite characters was Dr. Leed/Daniel the therapist. His character doesn’t change so much as Maguire’s perception of him does, but it was so much fun to see her open up to him bit by bit. If there were an award for Best Unintentional Matchmaker in YA, he would be my top nominee. The depiction of his character also felt like an important reminder that therapists aren’t scary. They’re average people with special training to help others, an important message for the teens (and everyone else…and me) that read this book.
The secondary characters were also handled with care and this was one the few books where no stone was left unturned when it came to character development. Each had their own voice and stood their own on the page. From Kimber, the over-protective and intense tennis player, to Penn, Jordy’s perky auto-enthusiast sister, these characters brightened the story and made the read even more enjoyable.
Girl Against the Universe also features an honest portrayal of a complicated relationship between a teen and her family. Maguire’s connection to her deceased father, uncle and brother was a touching thread in the novel. Equally touching was her increasing trust in her mom and stepdad, Tom. Parents are often absent in YA, but in this novel, they are undeniably present, with fantastic results.
Overall, Maguire’s challenging of her seemingly endless bad luck was a spectacular read, and there isn’t a single part of this novel that I didn’t enjoy. This novel has become, and will remain, one of my favorites in a long time. It’s a rare gem of a story. I can only hope other people will give this novel a chance to become their favorite as well. I highly recommend it.