Book Review Saturday – ‘Vivian Versus the Apocalypse’

Katie Coyle, the author of Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Hot Key Books, 2013) was the winner of the 2012 Young Writers Prize, and she’s been on my radar ever since. I’ve been interested in this, her début novel, ever since I read the blurb for it – a young girl whose parents are Raptured at the end of the world, leaving her behind – and even though it took me a while to get around to buying and reading it, I’d never lost that spark of interest.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Vivian is only being published in America this month under the title Vivian Apple at the End of the World, despite its author being American herself (one of the stranger things about publishing is how the different markets have different time-scales, sometimes!) and I was glad to finally have a chance to pick up a copy just before Christmas.

The idea behind this book is certainly off-the-charts – I mean, it was a strong enough hook to keep me interested for over a year, and that’s saying something – but I’m not sure I ever got fully on board with the execution. Besides the knockout central concept, other good things about the book included the fact that I really liked Vivian, and I loved the character of her best friend Harp, and I also loved that there was no huge focus on angsty, twisty love relationships (in particular I thought Harp’s attitude to sex and relationships was refreshing and good to read about, at least in relation to her own love life. She does give Vivian a smattering of strange advice in parts, though). I thought the book was well written, structured and paced, and that it had some wonderful touches in its description and dialogue. I liked Peter, the obligatory ‘cute’ boy (but to whom there is more than meets the eye, naturally). I enjoyed the diversity, and the inclusion of people of varying sexualities, and the clear-eyed, honest look at American life and culture. In fact, this latter aspect was probably my stand-out favourite bit of the whole book, but it’s tied up, too, with my least favourite bit.

I’m fascinated with things like American mega-churches which act, in all ways, like corporations. From my (limited) viewpoint, America seems to be a land where religion can morph into different shapes from its European counterparts, and that it’s probably the only place where an organisation like the Westboro Baptist Church (which the Church of America in this book reminded me of, somewhat) could take seed. Coyle makes great points about commercialism and capitalism and greed and selfishness and the dangers of seeing people as expendable and secondary to profit, and I’m with her on all of these issues. I agree, in short, with the book’s politics. But my main difficulty with the book is this: I never really bought that the Church of America – a mega-corporation, selling everything from clothing to breakfast cereal to salvation – could overtake America so fully, and could convince so many people in this massive, diverse country to follow it, all in the space of three years. No matter how convincing a speaker their leader is, no matter how slick their advertisements are, no matter how frightening a picture of the future they paint, I couldn’t believe that America would be homogenous enough to fall into the Church of America fold so fast. Not in this day and age, at least, this era of questioning and cynicism. I did appreciate that some people didn’t believe, and were never part of the corporate machine behind the Church of America, but its grip still seemed unfeasibly strong. Perhaps, of course, I’ve misread or missed something, or this is going to be explored in the book’s sequel, or indeed I’m just not familiar enough with the American culture upon which Coyle is drawing, and I’m always happy to be corrected – but this is how I read the story.

But back to the excellent stuff. The book starts out in fantastic fashion – Vivian and Harp are at a Rapture’s Eve party, one of many being thrown on the chilly March evening when Pastor Beaton Frick, the leader of the Church of America, has prophesied that the Rapture will take place. This is the day when all those ‘worthy Believers’ will be taken, body and soul, into heaven, and all those found unworthy will be left behind to face perdition. Vivian is not a Believer (even though she wavers, every so often, which makes her feel real and vulnerable and believable), but her parents are.  So, when Viv returns home after the party to find her parents gone, and two holes in the roof of their bedroom, she can come to only one conclusion.

Her parents were right all along. The Rapture has happened, and they’ve been taken.

This means that Vivian, and all the many millions who were not Raptured, are living in an alternate world. What has befallen all the people who have disappeared? Have they been Saved? And what’s going to happen to the rest of humanity?

Together with Harp and Peter (the ‘cute boy’ she meets at the Rapture’s Eve party) Viv sets off on a cross-country trip in search of the truth. It’s a classic American coming of age road-novel, full of sweeping vistas and raising gas prices and taking turns behind the wheel, and the changed face of the country gradually reveals itself. There are sections which lost me completely, including one in which Viv is taken by her grandparents to live with them in New York, because (at 17) she is a minor and cannot be left to fend for herself – but then she simply escapes, with no consequences, and abandons her elderly grandparents to a massive, coast-destroying storm without a second thought. It’s as if the entire section in New York was set up for one purpose – to allow Viv to receive a phone call never meant for her, which sparks her mind off in a new direction. By and large, though, their adventures are interesting and tense, particularly when they start to take their toll on Harp.

The idea of abandonment and fractured families and emotionless disconnection from those people who should be dearest to you is one which is used several times in this book, and to me, this fragmentation (which is well handled) was one of the most important aspects of the story. There are so many good concepts and ideas in the book, but I also had a hard time accepting its conclusion, which seemed a little disjointed and implausible, and where this fragmentation of families comes to a slightly strange crescendo. Having said that, I know the book is setting itself up for a sequel.

For its central idea alone, I will say Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is definitely worth a read. If you’re looking for a YA/road-trip/coming of age book with an entirely different twist and flavour to it, full of diversity and and an excellent female friendship, give this one a go – and then tell me what you thought of the end!

 

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