It's not often that a science fiction story so well evokes a time and place in real-life history. The time is 1978-79, and the place is New York City's Upper West Side with its good and bad smells, nice and mean people, fears and little pleasures. This is a nearly perfectly crafted novel, in which the sci-fi element transcends itself and is the glue that holds together the much more important story of friendship, loss, and self-sacrifice.
12-year-old narrator Miranda is a latchkey kid whose mom does paralegal work for a law firm, the same one her German boyfriend Richard works for as a lawyer. (Contrary to many reviews of When You Reach Me, Richard is not a live-in boyfriend.) This is a book about relationships, how they cross and connect, how they're formed and maintained, how they fall to pieces. The plot is simple enough for young readers to follow, but complex enough for adults to enjoy and ponder over.
Also, the plot is difficult to describe without giving anything away. Miranda's favorite book (though it's never named) is A Wrinkle in Time, and elements of L'Engle's masterpiece crop up throughout When You Reach Me. You don't need any acquaintance with the older book to enjoy this one, however. Rebecca Stead's book is also about time travel, but it's much more rooted in reality and the fantastical elements are kept to a minimum.
There are plenty of gritty details about life in New York City back in the late '70s, all drawn from Stead's own experiences growing up on the same streets her characters inhabit. Her characters don't live perfect, crisp, Victorian lives, they live the lives of modern people in a modern city with all the problems and struggles inherent under such circumstances, but Stead is restrained and these are still pretty normal families and people.
Despite the period setting, the story is also one that contemporary children can easily relate to. Miranda's struggles involve her own human nature, those of the people around her, and the innate difficulty of relating and surviving emotionally in an increasingly disconnected society.When You Reach Me is well-written, engaging (though not for kids younger than 5th grade), and the kind of book that readers of all ages will find rewarding, entertaining, and deeply touching.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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