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Review: Away We Go by Emil Ostrovski

Away We Go CoverAway We Go
Emil Ostrovski
Greenwillow Books
Published April 5, 2016

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

About Away We Go

Westing accepts only the brightest and best of students, so long as they also have one problem: a diagnosis of the terminal Peter Pan Virus (PPV.) Noah is one such case. As he wrestles to deal with the drastically shortened timeline of his life and the mandatory separation from his family and former friends, Noah finds something unexpected: love. The problem? He’s supposed to be in love with his girlfriend, Alice. Instead, he’s head-over-heels for the erratic boy who runs a secret club. The more time they spend together, the less certain Noah is about Zach’s feelings. As his friends become sicker, and the end of his own life draws near, Noah becomes frantic for answers. To his questions about love, the outside world, and what gives life meaning and value.

First – in reading some of the reviews about this book on other sites, it looks like some people expected this to be a dystopian story about the mass spread of an incurable virus, etc etc, oodles of suspenseful stuff racing toward a cure or something and were therefore disappointed when they uncovered one huge issue: that’s not what this story is. If you don’t like books about emotions (I do!), this probably isn’t one you want to pick up. Because there are LOTS.

My Review

This is more an emotional journey framed by a pandemic involving massive amounts of teens infected with a deadly, highly contagious, incurable disease. Also, a meteor that might hit earth. But those are kind of just the story’s frame. What we’re really watching unfold is this boy who’s trying desperately to figure out who he is and what that means. To himself. To the boy he loves. To the girl who loves him. And it’s a difficult, messy, heartbreaking, amazing journey.

I read Ostrovski’s debut a couple of months ago and was simply blown away by the unique perspective of the story, the fantastically witty banter between characters—even in the midst of these heartbreaking scenes, these characters were cracking me up—and the way these grand philosophical ideas were naturally woven into the story. But that’s another review, which you can read here.

Point being, as I started to read Away We Go, I was so nervous. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the story. And to be honest, after the first couple chapters, I was still nervous. I’m not sure when I really fell for Noah. Probably about the time he started snarking about sandwiches. Possibly not until he met Zach. But then I was hooked.

There were several things about the story that really stood out to me as awesome. One being the incorporation of the play Marty writes about Peter Pan and Wendy. I loved how that became this thread running through the story and that final scene captured the central conflict felt by so many of the characters in the story.

When I was a teenager, I knew a girl who was terminally ill. We weren’t very close, largely because I didn’t understand a lot of the things she did. Now, looking back, I feel like I really misjudged her. I wanted her to behave like I did. I honestly never considered (not in a mean way, just ignorant, sadly…) what it would be like to be seventeen and know that you probably wouldn’t live past thirty and how that might change what felt reasonable, necessary. Urgent.

I thought about her a lot as I read this book. I thought about how there’s a real question, in the story, about whether or not the students should be educated. I mean, they’re all going to die. Is there a point? Is education a human right? I thought that was a really cool element to explore. It’s not deeply followed, but I liked even just the drive-by moment. I thought about her as Noah rockets down this somewhat destructive path toward trying to capture love.

In terms of the writing, I have to say that the way some of the characters had really distinct voices definitely made them seem real. Ostrovski’s writing absolutely shines in dialogue between characters. Amazing stuff. Moving on before I get star-struck and gushy…

So if you’re looking for a really heart-wrenching read with a lot of complex characters and witty banter, some exploration of moral issues and love, add this book to your list. See below for content information from the story.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity and some crude language used with moderate frequency. One girl condemns this behavior.

Romance/Sexual Content
Boy/girl and boy/boy romance and sex described in some detail.

Spiritual Content
Westing has a group of students who’ve formed a religious organization for support and faith community. The details of the faith system stay pretty murky, and Noah does not get involved.

Violent Content
A boy falls to his death. Noah learns two students have been shot. Brief descriptions of rumors about what happens to kids who read end stage PPV and are transferred to other facilities. (Are they experimented on, that sort of thing.)

Drug Content
Noah (and his friends) drink quite a bit of alcohol, behavior condemned by another friend.

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Author Interview: Emil Ostrovski

If you’ve been following The Story Sanctuary for a while, you’ve probably heard me gush about a couple of books I read recently and really enjoyed. Here, as part of an Irish Banana Blog Tour, is the author of those books, graciously answering my pesky fangirl questions….

About Emil Ostrovski

I’m twenty-five.

Rather than give you a witty, self-deprecating account of the trials and tribulations of my twenty-five year old, suburban, upper-middle class, went-to-a-girl’s-liberal-arts-college life, I’ll admit that I haven’t really done anything much worth reading about.

So in lieu of providing you with my biography, I will recommend that you read Desmond Tutu’s. Here.

Why Desmond Tutu?

Well, I’ve always liked his name.

Interview with Emil Ostrovski

I’m super excited to have this opportunity to ask some of the deep burning questions that reading your novels has raised. Both were such deep, emotional stories. I’ll try not to get too sappy with the questions, though…

Thanks for having me! I appreciate the kind words.

If you had to do all your writing from inside a box under a bridge, what type of box would you choose to write in, which bridge would you place it under, and why?

If I had to do all my writing from inside a box under a bridge, I’d probably take up floristry instead. I hear it’s booming.

Ha! I suppose that makes sense. 🙂 In Away We Go, the story centers around characters diagnosed with a deadly virus bearing the name of a famous character in a children’s story (Peter Pan.) Who is your favorite little-known character from children’s literature?

There is a classic Brazilian children’s novel titled My Sweet Orange Tree, which features Zeze, a precocious five-year-old boy living and working as a shoe shiner in Rio de Janeiro. The book jacket describes him as the most mischievous boy in the Western Hemisphere, and that is not far off. Throughout the narrative, Zeze looks after his little brother, constantly gets into trouble with his parents, deals with poverty, escapes to a realm of imagination populated by a talking tree, and even experiences his first brush with death and mortality.

Sounds like an incredible story.  I was really moved by your description of The Paradox of Vertical Flight as a sort of good-bye to some expectations you’d had about life and parenting. Is there a personal message hidden in Away We Go as well? (If so, will you share it?)

I suppose the most personal thing I can tell you about Away We Go is that it was a way of trying to deal with unrequited love. It took me a long time to figure out I was gay, I think, because in high school and middle school I never really met a guy who exhibited all three of these very elusive characteristics: cuteness, niceness, and intelligence. When I got to college, I met someone who exhibited all three almost immediately.  He was the original Zach, and the original draft of Away We Go was, perhaps, an attempt at grappling with my feelings for him, which I was confused about at the time, since I had not yet fully come to terms with my sexuality. Years later, when I revised the novel for my editor at Greenwillow, Zach changed somewhat, became more like my first ex-boyfriend, by which I mean a little more confusing and inconsistent. At the time I was revising the novel, we had just broken up, and I was pretty hurt. Injecting some of him into Zach wasn’t cathartic, and did not make me feel better. But it felt natural, and I figured I might as well get some mileage out of my pain.

You know, it’s funny – I had a hard time finding all three of those qualities in middle and high school boys, too. 🙂 Though in fairness, girls weren’t much better, I think. Rough time of life. But I digress. In reading the story, I found it so easy to root for Noah in part because of a past destructive relationship in my own life. Something would happen and Noah would respond and I’d be like, “Right?!” So… yes. I think you definitely captured the confusion and pain that some relationships can cause. I hope that seeing the story resonate with readers brings a kind of healing.

Also in your blog post about the release of The Paradox of Vertical Flight, you talk about the idea of a novel emerging as a flash or a half-second dream. What was the flash that started Away We Go?

Away We Go‘s flash was a website that catalogues the “departure” of terminally ill children.

I felt like that was such a unique part of the story. One of my favorite elements about The Paradox of Vertical Flight and Away We Go was the dialogue. I loved the genuine feel and the way that even some of the serious conversations were also filled with banter. Do you have a favorite moment of conversation between the characters in Away We Go and can you share it?

My favorite conversation is probably the last conversation Noah and Zach have in the book. Without giving too much away, I think that it’s an incredibly painful and awkward and honest moment for both of them. They’ve spent so much of the book skirting around their feelings. This is their last chance to speak to each other, and it’s one of a handful of moments that the entire novel is building toward, I think.

That was a great conversation. I won’t give anything away, either. 🙂

Are there other authors whose work inspired the story of Away We Go or whose work inspires you as a writer?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was sort of my spirit-guide while writing Away We Go. I found his approach to science fiction fascinating—the idea that science fiction could serve primarily as an opportunity for a specific type of character study.  I wanted to emulate what he had done.

I haven’t (yet) read Never Let Me Go, so I can’t speak to the comparison, but I felt like Away We Go was very much a character-driven story inside the shell of a dystopian story-world. So it definitely seems to me that you succeeded.

I love the references to philosophy and classic literature in your novels and the way those ideas are incorporated into the story. Is that something that happens naturally as you write? Do you hope that the references will inspire readers to seek out those stories as well?

In both books, the references happened naturally to some degree in the original drafts, because they were an aspect of the characters’ voices. Jack loves the Ancient Greeks, and Noah likes to reference everyone from twentieth-century existentialists to Shakespeare. During revision, these references were fine-tuned, and made more consistent.  More conscious thought was devoted to their deployment.

I think it would be lovely for readers to look up, for example, Dostoevsky’s Notes from The Underground, because Noah talks about it, or to read some Whitman because they are moved by the excerpts Noah includes in his story. But that is not my primary concern. My primary concern is always preserving the authenticity of the character’s voice.

Very cool. In Away We Go, Skittles play a surprising role. Did you eat any Skittles during the writing?

I’m actually more of an M&M’S guy.  😛

Honestly, I can’t blame you. I’ll take chocolate over skittles any day. But I can see how Skittles made a superior metaphor. 🙂

I’m a huge believer in stories that challenge our perceptions of our lives and those around us. Can you name a literary moment which changed or challenged you?

I read The Grapes of Wrath toward the end of high school. It features a family called the Joads, who flee Oklahoma during the Great Depression and head for California hoping to find work. Perhaps because I loved and cared about the Joads, or perhaps also because Steinbeck was writing about a real moment in our history, the following quote resonated particularly with me:

For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live—for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live—for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

To me, at the time, this quote captured the relationship between human beings and their history and their future. It defined history not simply as a sequence but as a moral progression, a progression whose impetus emerged from within ourselves, and it explained the existence of suffering as part of the process by which the human species develops morally. 

When I read this excerpt as a seventeen year old kid, I felt something approximating a religious feeling—of hope in humanity, in history, of awe at being a part of something so vast and so beautiful, and ultimately of grace, at all the people who take small steps to move the human species and the human spirit forward. 

YES. Such an important message, too. We certainly need the reminder that sometimes suffering is part of a larger, worthy process. Deep stuff. I so appreciate you taking time to share these things.

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Week 1:

4/4: Books In Her Head – Review

4/5: Such a Novel Idea – Playlist

4/6: Novels and Necklaces – Review

4/7: Words Like Silver – Mood Board

4/8: It Starts At Midnight – Review

Week 2:

4/11: Cover Contessa – Guest Post

4/12: Reading Is Better with Cupcakes – Review

4/13: Swoony Boys Podcast – Top 10

4/14: Bibliphilia – Review

4/15: The Story Sanctuary – Q&A

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