One of the best things about speculative fiction is that it sometimes cuts to the truth of real life better than contemporary literature can. Sometimes it nails things in a way that no realistic book ever has and it rips your heart to shreds.
Speculative fiction is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres because of this.
So before I start into what will be one of the most personal reviews I’ve ever written and shared, be warned that this review features spoilers. But they aren’t going to ruin the plot or the emotional heft of the story. In fact, I think knowing these things ahead of time will make your experience with Cecil Castellucci’s First Day on Earth more powerful. It’s a short book — a mere 150 pages — and some of the chapters are simply one sentence long. Those words, though, are some of the most powerful I’ve ever experienced as a reader. I walked away from this book thinking that for the very first time in my life, I’ve found someone who just got it.
In theory and from the description, First Day on Earth is a book about Mal, who is an alien. All he wants to do is go back to where he’s from. And in his Alateen group, he’s met this guy named Hooper who is crazy. Who also claims to be from another planet. As soon as the two of these guys who feel like the loneliest people on Earth meet, though, things change. Hooper knows he has to go back to his home star. Mal doesn’t want to let him go because he’s finally forged a friendship with someone, and Mal is desperate to go with him.
But . . . this book is not at all about the aliens. I didn’t believe for a second either one of these guys is an alien or from another planet.
These two guys are as human as human gets.
Mal is angry. His home life sucks. Mal’s mom and dad recently divorced after being apart for a few years. Mal’s mom has sunk into alcoholism and deep depression and his dad has just disappeared all together.
This is the first time I can recall ever truly feeling like I connected with a character dealing with a father issue. Mal’s dad is gone. Completely gone. He left nothing in his wake, though Mal knows where he lives. His dad hasn’t bothered calling, hasn’t bothered checking in, doesn’t care. He’s moved on. He’s living a new life with a new wife and kids and has completely divorced himself from Mal. What triggers the story is that after his father’s walked out, he’s back in the sense he wants to make his disappearance permanent. His mother got paperwork to make it so.
Mal has every right in the world to be as angry about it as he is. Every moment Mal got angry, I was angry with him. I’ve been there. It sucks. Everything Mal felt is completely authentic. Reading this thin little book brought out some gross emotions I’d shoved deep down because Mal’s story hit that little nerve I like to keep buried. But it felt good to feel them right along with this character. When Mal gets the chance to see his father in his new life as the theatrical director of Our Town (come on, how brilliant is this?) and is asked to help set up the show — his father, of course, not recognizing his own son because of time and sheer ignorance — and all he does is walk away I. freaking. cheered. It’s an incredibly painful moment for Mal to face the fact in order to move on, in order to reach the place he desperately longs for, he has to do the walking away. He needs the closure.
I don’t usually quote from the book, but this moved me to tears, and I think it speaks straight to the power Castellucci’s sparse prose packs:
This is the moment. I think.
“I could pay you forty dollars if you stay and help unload the truck. We really need the help,” he says. “I’ve got to go pick up my daughter from day care. My wife thinks it’s my job.”
I want to tell him that it is his job. To care for a child. To show up.
“I gotta go,” I say. “I gotta move on.”
“Fair enough,” he says.
So I do it.
I turn around.
I walk away.
I’m wrecked, but I’m also one million times lighter.
It’s better to be the one who’s leaving.
I’ve been there myself. The one walking away. At his age, even. And in that moment I connected so hard with Mal. He deserved to be angry and mad and have that moment of taking back his life. I won’t lie — I shed more than one tear. I remember being 15 and making the choice to be the one to walk away. Every emotion here, especially the ones between the lines, rings true.
When a parent walks out of your life with no explanation, it’s hard to articulate what that really feels like. And the fact is, no one truly can understand what it feels like unless they’ve been there. It’s not about the divorce or about what it feels like when parents split. Having a parent walk out on you is devastating and horrific on a whole different level. Knowing they’ve got a new life — one without you, one with new kids and a new wife — and knowing they’re never going to come back to see you? It wrecks you. In First Day on Earth, Mal’s mom becomes an alcoholic, and Mal is abandoned. When it happens to you when you’re 15, you feel like an alien and like you truly, honestly do not belong here. You’ve been dropped somewhere completely foreign without the support you deserve to have.
It sucks. And it penetrates everything — Mal cannot relate to the people around him because he feels so foreign. He can’t forge the connections he wants because he can’t piece himself together. Moreover, he doesn’t believe anyone has ever felt as low as he has. He thinks everyone around him has it good compared to him. And how could he not, really?
Through the metaphor of the alien, of course, Mal does begin to piece himself together. It’s never once about the alien or the spaceship but becoming whole and one with oneself. And it so does that right in the end.
While we’re given the chance to build this sympathy for Mal and to feel his pain, we also realize what he’s not realizing: that other people experience pain, too, even if it’s not the same thing he feels. He’s NOT an alien. He makes a huge assumption about fellow classmates Posey and Darwyn having these glossy perfect lives. But Mal comes to find out that they do not. Their baggage…it’s just different than his. And that’s okay. No one pain is bigger than another. It may be different, but in the end, it’s all crappy. That’s precisely when he realizes that trying to escape it all isn’t the answer. He needs to just embrace it and enjoy what he’s got while he can. Remember: he’s 15. That’s how 15 year olds rationalize. That’s exactly how I rationalized it all, too, at that age.
What Castellucci does in so few words is so powerful. It resonates. This book’s merits outweigh the problematic elements for me — that’s to say, this isn’t a perfect book. I wish we could have gotten a little more, especially when it came to character development of secondary characters. I would have loved knowing more about Mal in the after, wanting to know more about how he put what he figured out to use when he “comes back” to earth. I wanted to know more about Darwyn and Posey. But it makes sense why I don’t. Because really, readers are Mal throughout the story and cannot possibly know more than what I figure out in those final, crucial moments.
If my personal story here isn’t enough to express audience, I’ll be more explicit. This book is going to speak volumes to readers who have or are experiencing life with an absent parent. I’ve read a lot of books in the course of my life, and I say with all honesty, I’ve never read one that captured the reality and the trauma so well. The thing is, it’s a very private and very personal pain. People really don’t understand unless they’ve been there. Mal’s there, and he’s the kind of friend people need to find when they’re dealing with such a heavy and hard situation. More importantly, though, it’s a story about how we all have our baggage and how, despite being so different, the crap we carry doesn’t divorce us from the world. It grounds us more tightly.
I debated posting this review here for a few reasons, including the fact I don’t like being super personal in reviewing. I like to take the most objective path I can. But more than one friend told me I have to let people in sometimes and I like to think in working up the guts to post this, maybe it moves someone to hand this book to a teen (or adult!) who needs it. Or maybe, too, it’s a way for me to ground myself tighter to the world.
ARC picked up at ALA.