YA authors Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner join forces to deliver a smart, timely reflection on the beauty and unexpected heartache that can arise from escapism.
As someone who spends a majority of her day writing on, reading on, and communicating through keyboards and screens, it should not be shocking to see the way we talk everyday spill over into contemporary YA. Long gone are the days of shoving notes into friend’s lockers, catching up in the hall between classes to relay information, or spending hours hearing each other’s voices on the other end of a landline.
Starworld creates a pocket universe inside the new world we are living in. It is not the first contemporary YA novel to do so, but it is one of the first where the escapism is not behind the safety of an email chain or a group chat or even a made up anonymous school gossip board. Coulthurst and Garner instead opt to build an entirely new place called Starworld where their protagonists can get away from their troubles on the other side of their bedroom doors.
The book centers on Zoe Miller and Sam Jones whose chance meeting in reality leads them to build a friendship apart. It’s a testament to the power of technology today, where inhibitions of saying the right thing are stripped away when you do not have to see the person.
As readers, we witness Zoe and Sam’s friendship growing as layers of their private lives are revealed. The parallel events and interactions in their Starworld gain a sense of urgency and necessity as events beyond their control consume their respective realities.
Sam, lives a life of quiet that may be attributed to spending her life navigating her mother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and how that influences their relationship at home. How could the girl who tucks herself away in bathroom stalls to escape the noise of the world not benefit from building a relationship where the only sounds is the tone or vibration of a notification?
Then there is Zoe. If I had to relate to a character out of this pair, I would have bet you from the outskirts that it would be the quiet mouse hiding from the world and loving life with her online friends. But no, it is Zoe, the happy-go-lucky girl who wants to be around people all the time and make sure they are taken care of and having a good time. The one who loses herself easily in distraction, but carries around the weight of guilt for doing so.
With a disabled brother moving to receive the care he needs, an adoptive mother who has cancer, and a lifetime of knowing that her birth-mother gave her up as an infant — Zoe is constantly facing the idea that eventually everyone will leave her.
The novel picks up at a turning point in their lives — senior year. A time where both girls struggle to picture themselves taking the next step. Enter Starworld.
But it’s not only the silence for Sam, or the freedom for Zoe that makes Starworld work. It’s the catharsis that comes from finding an outlet to unpack years of pent up emotion. Every conversation does not have to be about Zoe’s adoptive mother’s illness, or her brother being sent away. Their conversations in Starworld are a balm for all the pain in their lives.
But this is where I believe the book takes a turn in an entirely unexpected way. The boarder between Starworld and reality is tested when Sam begins to develop feelings for Zoe in their online universe. The ending I’ll leave for you to discover, but I personally enjoyed the challenging and uneasy conversations, confusion, and fallout in this novel. There is a huge amount of love that exists between Zoe and Sam that builds organically over the course of their time spent in Starworld.
Part of that connection to Sam and Zoe stems from Starworld‘s other strength — its dual authorship. There is a distinctness in the writing between Coulthurst and Garner that comes off as complimentary, rather than competitive. I particularly enjoyed the pacing of Starworld, how it chose to keep moving forward in the narrative instead of rehashing the same events through altering perspectives. Readers get a better sense of two very different worlds Sam and Zoe inhabit, making the introduction of Starworld that much more special and sacred.
I will say I wanted more world building inside of Starworld. For all the struggles and emotional hits that occur outside of the bubble, more time inside the space space would have been a true highlight of the book.
If you value the power of online relationships, be it through fandom or ones that helped you to keep you connected to old friends, add Starworld to your to-read list. As someone with friendships made entirely possible by online communication stemming from fandom, it is a sober reflection on what a gift it is to have that space to share in the joy, drama, and eventually grow close enough to take the scary step of moving apart from the thing that brought you together.