Fifteen years ago, Carolyn Mackler introduced the world to overweight, self-conscious teenager Virginia Shreves and the beginning of her story in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, following her on a journey towards self-confidence and taking control of her own life. Earlier this year, that story was given a 2018 update – keeping all the heart while updating email chains with text messages and a Netflix subscription – and now, in The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, Virginia’s story has even gotten a sequel, and it continues to be a refreshing and realistic look at the life of a modern teenager, and all of the insecurities, challenges and pressures they face.
In Other Big Round Things, Virginia started out as an insecure 15-year-old with a penchant for writing harsh lists for her life, who felt like an outsider in her own family and was feeling adrift at school without her best friend too. But, by the time The Universe is Expanding picks up, Virginia is considerably more confident, having ignored her own ‘Fat Girl Code of Conduct’ and found a place where she feels happy(ish) with her body, her family, her friends and her boyfriend, Froggy Welsh the Fourth.
Only it’s not long before Virginia realises life isn’t as simple as all that, after all: she’s fallen out of like with Froggy, her family is facing its biggest struggle yet thanks to the actions of her previously-worshipped older brother Byron, and she meets Sebastian, someone cute and sweet, but with a family connection that means he may have come into her life at the worst possible moment.
As far as teenage protagonists go, Virginia is one of the most grounded, honest and realistic ones out there. She’s hard on herself just as much as she finds parts about herself to praise and even though she’s reached a place where she feels comfortable with her body and who she is, she still feels pressured by external factors, like her mother, her schoolmates and society telling her she’s too big. The result is a character that you can instantly form a connection with and Mackler gives Virginia a strong and unfiltered voice, delving into her thoughts on her own desire and crushes as easily as she reflects on her parents’ offhand body-shaming and sexist remarks.
“There are times that I’ve hated my body so much that I didn’t think I deserved to take up room on this earth. But I’ve always found reasons to live, like books and Shannon and cute boys and kickboxing and movies and carbs and Vassar and just the fact that things always get better and I want to be there when it happens.”
This novel is a sequel, but it can be read as a standalone, with Virginia providing plenty of context early on in book two to catch readers up on the events of six months ago (in book terms) or fifteen years ago if you were someone who read the first book on its initial release. It also continues a storyline from the first book that’s turned out to be more timely than ever in 2018 – that of Virginia’s brother Byron being accused of sexual assault – but this is an example of one of those times that a first person perspective doesn’t always bring the best narrative out on certain issues. Quite rightly, readers are given Virginia’s take on these events as her head and her heart battle it out over how to feel about her brother and his actions, how he should be punished and her compassion for the victim and her family too, but that distance also causes Virginia to brush over a lot of details that could have otherwise been explored.
The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I is an intelligent, funny and largely accurate portrayal of modern teenage life, grounded by a character who is compassionate, brave and well on her way to become a self-assured individual doing her best to overcome the niggling self-doubts that everyone struggles with. The ending did finish a little abruptly – a relationship challenged by pages and pages of secrets, problems and concerns can be wrapped in just a couple of pages with two phone calls, apparently – and brought the novel to an end just a fraction too soon, leaving readers feeling a little short-changed by the story that’s left to tell.
But, overall, Mackler’s latest is a quick, engaging read that will strike a chord with anyone who’s struggled with their confidence, their weight, their family or their relationships at any point in their lives – but particularly as a teenager.
The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I is published by Bloomsbury YA on 9 August 2018