Our Own Private Universe
by Robin Talley
Publication Date: January 31, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Obtained Via: Borrowed from the library
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
View at the Traffic light:
Fifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it’s mostly about sex.
No, it isn’t that kind of theory. Aki already knows she’s bisexual—even if, until now, it’s mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too.
Actually, Aki’s theory is that she’s got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she’s got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It’s time for her to actually do something. Or at least try.
So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing.
But it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you’re in love? It’s going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.
There were a few positive aspects of Our Own Private Universe, but on the whole this book was massively disappointing. I’ll start with the good: I’m pretty sure this is the first traditionally published YA that discusses and shows safe sex practices between two cis girls, and that has the characters research it. It’s portrayed as enjoyable, healthy, and mutual, which is sadly something you don’t see very often in f/f YA(props to Under the Lights for being the other YA that does this). Many of the negative reviews I saw before I started reading this book mentioned how drama-filled it is, which is true, but I liked that and thought it was incredibly realistic. As a former youth group teen, I can say that yes, there really is *that* much drama, and these characters act like teenagers. Aki is black and bisexual, and has an overall supportive family, even if they sometimes misunderstand each other. The book also shows teens starting to take interest in and discuss all sort of social issues, which was also great to see.
Now for the rest. My main complaint is that Our Own Private Universe avoids exploring the intersection of Christianity and bisexuality in any meaningful way. It’s clear that Aki’s congregation isn’t fundamentalist, but until the mission trip she has no idea where the church stands on homosexuality, except that allowing the church to support and conduct same-sex marriages is to be voted on at an upcoming conference. Her dad is the pastor, and she has no idea what he thinks of the resolution. I also finished this book with having no idea what Aki believes in terms of religion. I wasn’t expecting her to have Christian fiction levels of devotion, but I did expect her to interact with faith in some way.
I don’t think having a bisexual main character in a youth group setting means there has to be angst. Different churches have different beliefs, and while there are definitely some hurtful congregations out there, many churches that affirm same-sex relationships exist. Aki’s church seems to fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum during the time the book takes place, and I didn’t want to read pages of existential angst about it. But I would expect some inner thoughts. Not even inner turmoil! Just a glimpse of Aki’s internal life and how she thought about her sexuality in the context of her and her parent’s faith, because in the book those things are kept so far separate from each other in a way that borders on nonsensical.
Then there’s the issue that the portrayal of Aki’s bisexuality is. . . hmm. It’s not the worst that’s been in YA, but it’s also not great. Aki thinks that maybe she likes girls more than boys, and wonders if she’s still bisexual, and if she has to now hook up with a guy next to “prove” her bisexuality, which are all very valid questions that I would expect a teen to wonder and asks, especially one who hasn’t seen a lot of portrayals of bisexuality. But Aki’s best friend calls her gay more than once, even though Aki continually corrects her, and at one point Aki wonders if she’ll grow up and start to like only women and be a “normal lesbian”, which takes Aki’s internal questioning into a gross area.
The book also takes place while on a mission trip to Mexico, and there is a lot that isn’t treated there. We see some of the locals throughout the book, but it’s clear that the mission trip is meant to be a “learning experience” for the American church members. I don’t really have an issue with this being shown in the book because this does happen–quite frequently–but the problem is that the book never examines the ramifications of that, and how harmful it can be to treat an entire country and culture as a learning experience.
Overall, Our Own Private Universe really didn’t work for me, but. . . it also does a lot of things that haven’t been done yet in f/f YA, so I can’t write it off as not worth recommending. It’s one of those books that I hope in a few years we’ll have better ones to recommend instead, but for now I would say that this book is probably the book to recommend specifically and only for f/f safe sex in YA. If I was recommending for f/f and religion, I’d go with Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit instead, and if I was recommending for f/f healthy sexuality, interracial romance, and a bi character I’d go with Under the Lights. That’s a lot of caveats, but I do think it’s important to note that my recommendation for this book is incredibly weak and I think there’s much better out there for most of these aspects.
I feel like my 900 word review has probably gotten my point across quite well at this point. There are some positive aspects to Our Own Private Universe, but there was more that I thought wasn’t at all well done. Unfortunately, the positive aspects are rare enough at this point that there’s not really another book to point to in contrast. 2/5 cupcakes.