“Love is the Higher Law” by David Levithan

21 Aug


David Levithan's new novel, "Love is the Higher Law," is one of the few pieces of September 11th-related YA fiction that I can recall. It's an occasionally talky yet emotionally resonant novel that features Levithan's usual mix of multiple narrators, lyrical language, and meditations on the power of music.

Our narrators here are three New York City teenagers. We have sweet, giving high school student Claire, her music-loving pal and classmate Peter, and snarky college guy Jasper, whom Peter is set to date for the first time on September 11th. The kids' responses on the day of the attack, that awful mixture of horror, confusion, dislocation, and longing for normalcy, are superbly depicted. Anyone who lived through that day, particularly in the immediate NYC area, will absolutely relate to the whirlwind of emotions experienced by the teens. Levithan is particularly adept at using small details — Claire steadily lighting memorial candles at Union Park in a driving rainstorm or Jasper desperately picking up scattered papers from the World Trade Center site — to convey the almost overwhelming sense of sadness and powerlessness that followed the attack.

For the most part, the three narrators are an effective device, nicely presenting the wrenching recovery from different perspectives. The boys' voices, especially when describing their terrible first date, are spot-on. We see so clearly the mixed signals, hurt feelings, unspoken words, and, above all, the longing that the characters both miss in the moment itself.

Both Peter and Jasper are so flawed yet cautiously hopeful — so real — that I found myself irritated by Claire's distance from the readers. She seemed too perfect and selfless, too much of an idealized type rather than a human being. At one point, Claire remarks that if she hadn't met Peter and Jasper, she fears she'd be living her whole life inside her head. And that's the problem — too much of Claire's passages are devoted to big ideas and reflections that lack any emotional connection. For me, Claire's thoughts started to feel like weighty abstractions or philosophy lessons, which often undercut the novel's impact.

Still, there are such moments of poetry here, so many lines of text that scream out to be savored and reread, that the intermittent failings of one character can be overlooked. Besides, Levithan's ability to evoke music as a force of nature and present its ability to heal a community or allow one boy to lose himself for awhile is stunning, as always. All the best music-related parts of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," are matched here by the sheer joy and power of a Travis or U2 concert.

I'm somewhat concerned about the audience for this book — how much do today's teens remember about an event from 8 years ago? — but maybe fans of Levithan's other novels will give this one a try. There is ample strong language here, but nothing beyond the ways in which real teenagers talk every day of their lives. Overall, while there's much here for adults to like, I'm hoping there are teen readers out there as well. "Love is the Higher Law" is a somewhat sad, beautiful, and largely optimistic novel about one of the most important moments of our lives. It's definitely worth reading.

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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


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