A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood. But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count. So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.
Sometimes, you read a book and you want to love it; it’s funny, clever, and geeky, it covers an interesting topics, it has cool characters, it truly should be a case of connect-the-dots to love and yet … instead of love you get stuck in the friend zone—you like the book, you want to be its friend, but the spark to ignite more than friendship is just lacking. For me, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was such a book. This isn’t to say that it a bad book or that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s just that it didn’t have that spark for me. And that is mostly due to its protagonist and narrator Alex.
Be warned: there will be spoilers past this point, because there is no way to explain the above without touching upon things that are spoilers for the story’s plot.
Alex is not your regular teenage boy. No, he’s is one of the only people known to have survived a direct meteorite hit. As a consequence, he is epileptic, has a scar on the side of his head, which causes him to shave his head as not all of his hair grew back, and he’s something of an odd duck as everyone knows he’s the Boy Who Lived, or rather, the Boy Who Survived. All of which doesn’t help him fit in with his school mates one jot. So far, so good, this shouldn’t have been a problem at all, I like that trope; so what went wrong? Alex’s voice is what went wrong. The person narrating the book is Alex at seventeen, but throughout the book he sounds far younger and, as a result, also rather precocious in a know-it-all way. If anything, he reminded me of Marcus from Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, but more the film version than the book version, up to and including the weird, New Age hippy mum, the grouchy neighbour he befriends, and the gothy/emo love interest. But then with added epilepsy from brain damage caused by a meteorite. In all, not a point of view character I fell in love with. Still, by the end of the book, I came to appreciate him and I found his journey compelling, and I liked where he ended up by the last page of the book.
The character I found absolutely fascinating was Mr Peterson. A widowed Vietnam vet, who has retreated into his own cocoon and who doesn’t really have any connections to life any more beyond his dog, he is your prototype tough guy with a heart of gold. I found his reluctant friendship with Alex quite touching; his unquestioning acceptance of Alex’s quirky nature and his gradual bolstering of Alex’s self-esteem were heart-warming. So when Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a progressive, terminal neural disease, it’s devastating, both for Alex and the reader. What follows after is heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time. It’s also what made the novel stand out for me and provoked quite some thought.
Because this is the point where The Universe Versus Alex Woods hits its stride and its main question: Who decides when it’s time to leave this world. The novel discusses a person’s right to die in a frank and unflinching manner. While I questioned Mr Peterson’s decision to make Alex his main co-conspirator in his plan to die on his own terms and in his own time – who would put a seventeen-year-old in that position? – I never questioned that he decided to take that option. Perhaps, that’s partly due to the fact that euthanasia is an accepted choice in my country; if a person is terminally ill or has a condition that is so debilitating that quality of life is so bad that it is more punishment than gift to be kept alive, they have the option of discontinuing treatment, or even actively ending their life, under very strict rules and the guidance of a doctor. This isn’t to say that this is a common occurrence, far from it, but it’s an accepted one. But Extence lays the groundwork for Mr Peterson’s choice carefully and has Alex examine his choice from all angles before taking a stance. And following on from Alex’s conclusions, it’s hard to not see why they both think it is the right choice. Obviously, this will be a controversial stance for many people for many different reasons, but I found Extence treatment of this difficult, and quite often rather taboo topic, thoughtful and respectful and I commend him for the way he tackled it.
In the end, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was a bit of a mixed bag for me. If not for the incredibly powerful last part of the novel, it would have been a mediocre read for me, again not due to the author’s writing skills or the story, but due to the disconnect I experienced between the character’s voice and his actions. But the examination of the thorny issue of active euthanasia at a point of an illness’ progression where even in the Netherlands it’s doubtful that the doctors would agree to it, lifted the book to another level in my opinion. Far from perfect, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was an interesting first novel from Gavin Extence and is quite worth a read.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.