My Summary: Tara Krishnan is used to being an outcast in her school and is devastated when her best friend decides to spend their junior year studying abroad in Argentina. However, that’s only the beginning of the changes: Tara is suddenly swept into the popular social circle of her high school, and an alternate Earth with the same people but a different history is discovered. The discovery starts to warp the world around her, from her family, to her friends, and nothing in her life will be the same again.
This book is different from a lot of contemporary YA books. Sure, it has the high school drama, the crush/romance plot, the theme of trying to fit in and make friends, etc., but it also has something more, which is incorporated and explored through the speculative element.
Before I discuss the speculative part, I want to talk a little bit about how race and class are treated in the book. The main character, Tara, is biracial, white and Indian American, but she is not white-passing. She experiences microaggressions all the time, and she’s hyperaware of her difference in her town, where she is the only brown person at school. The book describes the feeling very accurately in this passage:
“I didn’t like the defensive tone in my voice, but I often felt I was walking through a field of landmines in Greenwich. people–teachers, other students, parents–constantly made offhand comments that didn’t mean much to them, but I read something else in their words. A hidden language that told me I was different. Or maybe I was so aware of my own difference that I was just looking to be offended by other people’s words.”
One of the worst things about microaggressions is how small they are and how they’re often unintentional because that smallness, that lack of malicious intentions, is used by other people to excuse them even though the perpetuate bias. And anyone who has experienced a microaggression probably knows the feeling of questioning themselves and feeling like they’re the only one who notices and is affected. Sometimes people of color invalidate their own feelings about experiencing racist microaggressions because they don’t want to be That person who disrupts the peace by speaking up.
Tara tolerates the microaggressions for a while, but eventually she puts her foot down when she knows that she’s being tokenized and exploited through the model minority stereotype. What ensues after she loses her patience is one of the most spectacular call-outs and smackdowns of a racist in the history of YA literature. It was one of my favorite scenes in the book because it was extremely cathartic for me as someone who has been in a similar boat to Tara. I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to say something like that to someone who has authority over me at school.
Not only is Tara Indian American in a school of white people, she’s also a scholarship student at an elite prep school. While a large number of Indian Americans are part of the professional elite as engineers, doctors, etc., not all of them are. Tara’s father is one of those people who fell through the cracks in the system. He wanted to be a physicist, but ended up working as kitchen staff in a restaurant and then opening his own restaurant. Tara’s class background adds a layer to her experience of marginalization.
Tara explicitly mentions it at the beginning:
“In Connecticut, we were all alone, adrift in a sea of whiteness and wealth, and it really did feel like a sea I was drowning in.”
Her feeling of isolation isn’t just mental or emotional, it’s also a byproduct of the physical environment she’s living in, shaped by social class. Before she lived in wealthier, suburban Connecticut, she lived on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment building with twenty-four other people who were like extended family. The physical closeness of these families facilitated their psychological closeness. In the suburbs, things are markedly different, where every house has its own lawn and is set a distance away from the road, usually with a driveway and a long path between the road and the door. This physical separation from her neighbors exacerbates the mental and emotional disconnect she already feels from them.
Now, to discuss the speculative element of the book. Interwoven with Tara’s personal struggles at school and home are the repercussions of the discovery of Terra Nova. It’s an alternate Earth, with almost the same people, but with differences in its history where it deviated notably from Earth’s. The existence of this planet provokes mass curiosity that becomes obsession for many. People are intrigued by the idea that on Terra Nova, there might be another version of themselves. This idea causes people to reevaluate their relationships with the people around them as well as reflect on their own lives. In some cases, it causes them to make drastic changes, throwing off the balance in the lives they touch. Tara’s mother is one of these people, leading to more stress for Tara.
By juxtaposing and interconnecting the global and the local events in Tara’s life, Aditi Khorana introduces deeper themes on how humans deal with the question “what if?” This philosophical bent is what makes the book stand out to me among other contemporary novels.
Beyond the speculative element, the author is great at character development. Tara is initially judgmental of the people in the popular clique she gets roped into, but as the story progresses, we start to see through Tara the complexities of these characters. They have their own secret struggles and ambivalent feelings that create tensions in their relationships with one another.
The one thing I disliked about this book was that there was no definite information on what happened to one of the major characters (won’t spoil who) at the very end. It was really upsetting to me since I like to have closure. But at the same time, I think the author did it for a reason, for the sake of the broader theme of the story, so I’ve made my peace with it.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for a hardcore science fiction book, this is not that kind of book. If you want a thought-provoking contemporary novel with speculative elements, read this book.