Hardcover, 368 pages
Expected publication: September 3rd 2013 by Disney Hyperion (first published August 1st 2013)
By itself, that’s a whole lot of story to handle. But just as Em and Finn make their escape, we’re introduced to another viewpoint character – Marina, who is living in what appears to be a blissfully pre-dystopia world, along with her brilliant, budding-scientist friend James, who she’s in love with. And unfortunately, Marina stands right in the way of Em’s mission. The first person narration switches between Em and Marina, each trying to outwit the other before it’s too late.
It’s tough challenge for any writer to fully develop two separate sets of characters, but it works brilliantly thanks to Terrill’s fantastic craft. I was extremely impressed by the author’s pacing and narrative ability – while the tension of the main plot keeps the story driving forward, Terrill also takes the time to truly let us get to know these characters. The extremely tight and focused writing means that there isn’t a slow moment throughout. Like every author writing a story told from multiple perspectives, Terrill has a tricky balancing act: she has to make each character interesting and sympathetic enough that we won’t be disappointed when the perspective changes, even when these characters are on opposite sides of a conflict And I’ll be honest: When I started the book, I enjoyed Em’s chapters much more than Marina’s.
It probably isn’t surprising, that, as a guy, I would hold that opinion: the first few chapters seem to deliberately set up a dichotomy between these two. Em embodies the traits that are very common in the male heroes of YA novels written for boys – the very first time we meet her, she’s locked in a cell being tortured by a tyrannical a regime, only to escape with the intention of finding the person responsible and murdering them. Marina, on the other hand, begins the novel very much a typical, although fantastically wealthy and privileged, teenage girl. Her obsession with guys, clothes, and fitting in seem that much more self-centered and petty when they are immediately contrasted with Em’s mission. I found myself immediately disliking her, which honestly bothered me, because all of the things that made me want to dismiss her as a character were all the things that make her relatable to so many young women.
The fact is that our culture does not value the views and experiences of young women and girls. They are constantly told that the most meaningful thing they can do is to be popular, pretty, and in a relationship, and then they are criticized as shallow and immature for liking these same things. And while there are of course countless examples of complex, sympathetic, and well-developed female protagonists in literature and YA literature in particular, all too often these stories define heroism by a female character as taking on personality traits that our culture defines as masculine and rejecting those defined as feminine, especially when the intended audience of the story includes both young men and women. One recent example is the reception to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and now the Game of Thrones TV show: Arya, who embodies many of the qualities that our society defines as masculine, is a fan favorite, while Sansa, who survives extreme danger through personality traits usually seen as feminism, is constantly maligned by viewers for doing exactly that.
So, I suspect that many boys and young men who read this story are going to find themselves in a similar position as I did – rooting for the heroic Em, and annoyed or worse by Marina. But the novel didn’t let me get off that easy. If All Our Yesterdays had been about only Em or Marina, it would have been an interesting and well-written, if somewhat typical, dystopian science fiction story. By themselves, each characters represents an archetype that fans of this genre are familiar with – Em is the tough, action-oriented survivor, who embodies character traits that we consider to be masculine, while Marina is the ordinary, sheltered, and very feminine girl suddenly thrust into a dangerous situation. And while it initially seems as those the novel will force us to choose between two, as the story moves forward it becomes clear that we are really seeing tow co-existing models of femininity, different ways to live in the world as a young woman. We have, I believe, a contemporary feminist novel.
What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that, in my view, this is a story that exemplifies the very best trends in contemporary feminism: the recognition that multiple, contradictory models of what it means to be a woman, can exist along side one another, even in the same person, and that treats each of these as representing a legitimate way of being in the world, with its own fully-developed values, viewpoints, and motivations. There’s no “right” way to be a woman here – instead, we can see clearly the benefits and the drawbacks of each type of feminity. So do the characters, and their struggle to understand each other is a fundamental part of what makes this story so powerful.
As the novel progresses, and we see Marina taken out of her conformable world and suddenly placed in danger and intrigue, we gain a sense of her outside what her current experience, the high-powered world of wealth and power has allowed her to become. And we see Em come to terms with the person that she was and can never be again. At the end of the novel, we are left with someone who is neither Em nor Marina who nevertheless contains both Em and Marina within her. And even though she may never know the full extent of who each of those people are, we know the different worlds that are inside of her. Personally, I can’t wait for her to find out.