Bright Shining World is a book that, while it doesn’t talk down to you, never really achieves any semblance of believability. Our main character is snarky and always has the perfect snippy one-liner to the adults, making him an instantly likable (though unrealistic) anti-hero. There are the usual “high school is weirder than science fiction” moments and in that way, this is kind of a fun play against type on the typical YA romance. But the eco agenda is heavy enough to be stifling (as well as very annoyingly repetitive).
Story: Wallace has followed his distant father all around the USA, often staying in a town for maybe a year until his father fixes whatever problem is at the nuclear power plant and they move on to the next one. Wallace is tired of saying goodbye, of never getting to stay with a girl long enough to get intimate, and with a father who barely acknowledges him and looks to be permanently traumatized by the death of his wife many years ago. But Wallace’s new school in upstate New York is different: the students are suffering from ‘hysteria’ and there are rumors of bright lights in the forest and the trees talking. Wallace soon begins to suspect his father is involved in more than just fixing nuclear power plants.
While the blurb makes this book sound serious, its tone is anything but grave. Rather, because of Wallace’s constant snarky observations on his life and others’ lives, it feels much more like a rant on the silliness of American culture. There are countless ‘hit you over the head with a sledgehammer’ paragraphs about how the world is killing nature and the Earth – even the plot itself is a rant against humanity’s insatiability. I have to admit, the lack of subtlety felt like the greatest weakness in the book: the author could have made the message more poignant with a bit more care. By the time we meet the bad guy, the characterizations get ludicrous.
The characters themselves are quirky, if cliche’d. The overachieving cheerleader, the geek who stays in his basement all night, the jock who randomly hates anything new and beats up other kids (especially new kids), etc. It makes the characters and plot feel paper-thin and unrelatable. Wallace looks to be the only sane one in a world created to destroy Earth’s ecosystem and he’ll make sure you know that ad infinitum.
Wallace as a character is very snarky and that was fun – for about the first 20%. Then the ‘angry angsty teen’ began to wear thin when there were no natural dialogue scenes to be found. I couldn’t engage in the plot or characters, especially when the ‘twist’ at the end (the reason for the hysteria) and the ‘big bad’ were just silly. At one point, I have to admit I thought about Shyamalan movies The Village and The Happening often since this felt like one of those movies. The ending was just as anticlimactic and disappointing as in those movies.
In all, I didn’t hate Bright Shining World. It was easy to read and there were a few laughs with the Wallace repartee. But it also was clearly a book with an agenda the author wanted to forward and with characters who were cliches and cardboard cutouts of high school life. Wallace never turned into a person I wanted to root for and especially the adults were disappointingly the typical ‘self obsessed, stupid, dense’ caricatures that are a hallmark of anything aimed at teens. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.