Published by Razorbill on January 26, 2016
Pages: 396 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start…until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.
That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.
I’d been slow to read Emily Henry’s debut novel The Love That Split the World (in part because it’d been advertised as the lovechild of Friday Night Lights and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and … I irrationally dislike that book). The Love That Split the World is chock-full of the sort of themes I very much enjoy in young adult novels: relationships, belonging, figuring out one’s identity and one’s place in different communities.
And in The Love That Split the World, those were the aspects I most enjoyed. Give me all your feelings! The trappings of time travel or parallel universes, while interesting, were often confusing to me. And while understanding those things was necessary for plot purposes, it wasn’t necessarily all that important in terms of the story’s emotional impact, which was – at least for me – much more powerful.
Still, I feel conflicted about The Love That Split the World. Here’s why.
The premise is as follows: it’s the summer before Natalie Cleary leaves her small hometown, Union, Kentucky, for Brown University. Although Natalie has had strange visions for most of her childhood and adolescence, with therapy, she successfully managed to rid herself of most of them except for one – Grandmother, whom she hasn’t seen in years. One night, Grandmother appears and tells Natalie that she only has “three months to save him,” that the answer is somewhere in the stories Grandmother has been telling Natalie all her life, and that Natalie needs to find Alice Chan. Natalie is confused, and then she starts having weird visions again, and then she’s at a football game and there’s this boy, Beau, and is he the one she’s supposed to save? (I leave it to you to determine.)
Here’s what I liked best about the book. First and foremost, I loved her development of Natalie as a character. This is one of those books where a first-person narrative worked really, really well for me. Natalie is an incredibly introspective and thoughtful narrator; she’s trying to think through her place in her family, her local community, and the world at large. I liked Natalie’s relationship with her sister and her best friend Megan – the banter between them was funny, and I really enjoyed the addition of these supportive relationships in Natalie’s life, even if it made Natalie’s final decision that much harder to stomach for me.
It’s also important for the narrative to know that Natalie is Native American but was adopted shortly after her birth by a non-Native family. I liked that the novel addressed some of the complicated issues around Natalie’s adoption (in terms of logistics of the the adoption itself but also how it affects Natalie’s relationship to her family). I thought that the novel tried to treat Natalie’s identity with sensitivity – she’s struggling with feeling like she’s part of two worlds and feels like “everyone is watching for signs that I don’t belong in everything I do.”
That said, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the way that the novel actually handled Natalie’s identity or integrated First Nations stories. So, Grandmother’s been telling Natalie stories ever since she first started showing up and has been insistent that the stories are crucial. These stories are interspersed throughout the narrative; they ultimately take on new meaning for Natalie as the story progresses. Here’s what troubled me: if the stories are First Nations stories (or retold from those stories), I wanted to know which Nation they were coming from. Additionally, I wanted them to be used differently. As it is, there’s something appropriative about the way that they get used in the text – they’re told totally without context in the story itself. I think this is because the entire thrust of the stories is to serve one purpose and that’s to facilitate Beau and Natalie’s love story. Spoilers about how this works under the cut. View Spoiler » Because, eventually, the choice that Natalie makes – to sacrifice herself for Beau – is informed by the stories that Grandmother – Natalie herself! future Natalie! – has been telling her. Natalie says: “I don’t have a choice … You spent years drilling it into my head. You taught me that to love was to die.” The novel’s pretty clear on the fact that it’s the stories that are the guide for Natalie’s actions here, but another quote just in case: “Someone tore a hole in time just over our bed all so you, lucky bitch, could know what it is to love. Someone tore up a tree and let us look through and decide to fall.” I don’t know, I was uncomfortable that these stories were ultimately used in service of Beau and Natalie’s love story. « Hide Spoiler
Also also, I don’t know how I feel about teenage girls making the choices that Natalie makes in this novel. Natalie’s attraction to Beau was written really well, but happens so rapidly for me, and – I love a love story, but if it comes down to it, I want teenage girls to choose themselves and their families and friends View Spoiler » instead of the boy they’ve loved for three months. I know that an AU has been created where hopefully all these things exist for Natalie and Beau both, but we’re told they’re not going to be the same, right? Like it’s not the same version of the family Natalie’s known and loved, and it’s not the same Natalie who’s going to love them. She has to give that up to give another Natalie a shot at another Beau. « Hide Spoiler I think I am just not ready for a love that splits the world, you all.
So, on the one hand: Henry’s writing is beautiful. I think she’s a gorgeous writer, I loved Natalie as a character, and I loved some of the relationships Henry built up around her. On the other hand, some of the choices Henry made with regards to Natalie’s identity and use of First Nations stories made me uncomfortable.
Finally, you should all check this out: I wanted to link to Debbie Reese’s Storify about reading The Love That Split the World.
Has anyone else read this? If so, what’d you think?