Review: Midnight at the Electric

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Peaches trilogy was one of the significant contemporary YA stories of my teen years. I hold it in such high esteem that I’m afraid of reading it again so many years later, in case my opinions would be different and my memories tarnished. But when I saw Anderson’s latest release, Midnight at the Electric, I thought this would be a great chance to revisit a beloved author through a new story, so I picked it up as soon as it came into my library.

midnightattheelectricAbout the book: Adri is preparing for life on Mars, to spend her remaining years building a new home for future generations. By 2065, Earth is a used-up place, but when Adri moves in with her distant cousin, Lily, for the duration of her final round of mission training, she discovers that there are still things to love about the planet she’s ready to leave behind. She and Lily find letters and a journal that connect them to a history they had never known themselves to be a part of. Through written words, they experience post-war England from the 1910s, and farm life in Oklahoma from the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl ravaged that part of the country. The three young women lead very different lives, but the stories line up to give Adri the answers she needs about her imminent trip to Mars.

“Time matters. Time matters. In nature’s calendar, midnight is the breath between day and night. It’s only at this hour that neither the sun’s rays nor the moon’s great pull can interfere with the electrical currents.”

There’s a lot going on in this book. We see a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, various family dynamics, a carnival, the Dust Bowl, war heroes and pretenders, international travel, electricity, old age and dementia, the deterioration of a planet and construction of life on another, wealth and poverty, sickness, scars, the follies of youth, friendship, preparation for space travel, and so on. There are so many big themes, settings, and discussion points folded within this story, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale.

“Tomorrow feels like flipping a coin. Every moment I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but tomorrow we begin to find out, and I almost can’t stand the thought of that.”

There’s also a lot going on in the formatting. Adri’s perspective is shown through a present, third-person narration that provides Adri’s actions and thoughts in “real time.” But through Adri, we also have two other perspectives in additional formats– Catherine’s sections are narrated first through a journal she kept, and then through letters she wrote after leaving her journal behind; Lenore’s sections are narrated entirely through her letters. Each section feels like the present (or recent past written from the present), though many years divide some of the characters. The formatting can be a lot to juggle, but it is all connected through Adri’s experiences.

” ‘The dust is terrible,’ he said after a long spell. ‘I know that. But… the rest of the world can be terrible too.’ “

If you can keep an eye on the raveling thread between all those areas of detail, the driving force of the story comes through the emotion in putting the pieces together. The reader learns in bite-sized snippets about life in dust storms, or after a war, or on a deteriorating planet. None of it is told exhaustively enough to become boring or overwhelming, but rather scratches the surface just enough to draw the reader’s attention, teach him/her something new, and move on to the next theme. The emotion between each is the glue that holds the story together.

“You become as strong as you have to be, don’t you think? When you’re trying to protect someone you love, you’ll do anything.”

There’s some romance (tastefully done, developing over time with each character unique and human and lovable), but there’s also heartbreak, friendship, adventure, betrayal… almost every emotion imaginable. (I realize adventure is not an emotion, but the combination of fear and excitement involved in adventure is.) In short, emotion is the thing Anderson does best here. In this coming-of-age story, with so much going on in the background, it can be hard to pinpoint a main plot. You could argue that Adri’s upcoming trip to Mars is the main plot arc, but that’s just one deadline among many. Even Adri seems to understand that the reader’s interest lies elsewhere– she’s regularly telling Lily that she needs to find the rest of the letters and records because she’s curious, because she likes to finish things, because she feels that there’s more to the story. It’s as though she’s urging the reader to keep turning pages, trying to convince the reader that he/she is curious too, reminding that there will be more to the story. A book with a strong plot doesn’t need those tricks. What it lacks in plot, though, Midnight at the Electric makes up for in emotion.

” ‘Don’t pin your hopes on something out there that doesn’t exist,’ he said, ‘or some ball of light or anything else. Pin them on me.’ “

“Grief isn’t like sadness at all. Sadness is only something that’s a part of you. Grief becomes you; it wraps you up and changes you and makes everything– every little thing– different than it was before.”

Highlighting emotion, however, introduces another problem: many of the main actions in the story happen just because the characters “feel” a certain way. They’ll have plans to do one thing, and then change their minds at the last minute because it doesn’t “feel” right. Most of the big decisions in Midnight at the Electric come down to impulse and feelings, which seems like an easy way out of rationalizing actions and fleshing out motivations.

” ‘Earth,’ Alexa finally said. ‘It’s not that great anyway.’ And they all smiled sadly. Because, of course, it was everything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the atmosphere(s) of this story more than anything else. The characters were sometimes predictable, and the tension was all over the place, but I did have a good time reading it. Although Midnight at the Electric didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, it also encouraged me to pick up another of Anderson’s books. I might have to check Peaches out again.

Further recommendations:

  1. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s YA Peaches is my favorite book by this author. If you like stories like Midnight at the Electric and are wondering where to go next, try Peaches, a story of three girls who become unlikely friends on a failing peach farm during a summer’s work that’ll affect all their lives.
  2. If it’s the crossing of characters through time that interests you (in YA), check out Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory. This one’s about souls that are aware of their reincarnations, set on a plot that arcs over several lifetimes to culminate in one grand fight for love and life.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, from the Man Booker Prize long list. This novel is magical realism focused on a war-torn country whose inhabitants flee as a last resort, though they find that the difficulties of their country will follow them past its borders.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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