Hilary T. Smith’s path to publication is a kind of cyber-fairytale. Working as an unpaid intern in the publishing industry and needing to make the rent, she started an anonymous blog called “Intern.” Written in upper-case third person (“INTERN has been thinking . . .”), the postings had the hilarious and faux-haughty tone of Miss Manners and contained wise and sensible insights into writing, publishing, and life. INTERN got noticed. When it came time for Smith to submit her own manuscript to an agent, she was already a known quantity. Her first novel, 2013’s Wild Awake, was published to critical acclaim. In her second book, Smith creates another treat – a fresh and accomplished piece of fiction that artfully tweaks the conventions it exploits.
Annabeth Schultz, a self-described “Deeply Flawed and Uncertain Human,” is in her final year of high school. Throughout her adolescence she has been sustained by her friendship with Noe, a confident, outgoing powerhouse who seems neither flawed nor uncertain. But something is shifting. Noe seems to be pulling away. There are two edgy subplots, but this simple, destabilizing shift forms the emotional heart of the narrative and Smith limns it with subtlety and wit.
The first-person novel sinks or swims on voice and A Sense of the Infinite is reliably buoyant. We are happy to listen to Annabeth because Smith gives her character three particularities. Most importantly, Annabeth has a fresh take on the world. Yes, she does the pseudo-weariness, sourness, and cynicism that seem requisite in YA, but much more often she is alert to the minutiae of the world outside herself. On a long bus ride she returns to the scruffy vehicle after a rest stop: “The seats with their detritus of squashed sweaters and half-drunk soda bottles looked like the little shrines people make at gravestones; plastic flowers gone crooked and leaky from wind and rain.”
Smith’s second gift to her character and the reader is the redeeming power of the natural world. Annabeth’s comfort object is a book called How to Survive in the Woods, and she escapes to the forest to regroup when she’s feeling overwhelmed. (A note to apprentice YA writers: add fresh air. Get your characters out of the shopping mall and their own heads and send them outdoors.)
Finally, Smith keeps us engaged with Annabeth even as we gradually realize she’s a liar. Though this is not a novel about anorexia, there’s a hint on the second page that both Annabeth and Noe have eating disorders. But Annabeth fools us, even as she’s fooling herself. Smith’s use of the unreliable narrator is subtle, accomplished, and convincing. We start to wonder where else we’re being led astray.
Keeping readers both close to Annabeth and slightly off-kilter is essential because we’re asked to follow the characters to some tough places. Annabeth’s backstory, revealed in a single scene, is that she was conceived as the result of rape. Smith doesn’t reduce the character’s challenges to this one fact, but it is nonetheless a fact of Annabeth’s self-image that she feels herself to be, on some genetic level, part monster.
Smith also includes a more familiar YA trope. Annabeth gets drunk at a dance, has (fully consensual) sex with a boy she barely knows, and gets pregnant. In an elevator pitch, either of these elements in Annabeth’s biography could sound cliché, but they are fully grounded in her character and the larger narrative.
The publisher’s plan is to promote A Sense of the Infinite as a crossover title. It’s legitimate. This is a smart book with enough meat for any reader. It’s more highly pitched and baroque than we’re used to in cooler adult fiction (I counted four similes in a single paragraph at one point), but all the more welcome for that. It’s darkly funny, weighing in on the timely controversy of unisex bathrooms and parodying genre fantasy novels and the names of Ikea furniture.
There’s also an anthropological appeal for those of us removed from the tribe of teenhood. I felt I was getting insights into an alien world. For example, to Annabeth and Noe there is a disconnect between intimacy and sex. Annabeth speaks of Noe in terms that are both intense and romantic: “We hurry down the street without breaking contact for a second, as if our bodies have as much to say to each other as we do.” There is no suggestion, however, that their relationship is sexual. (There are boyfriends around – handy, evolved, personable – but they remain peripheral.) This kind of passionate female friendship is something we may not have seen in fiction since Anne Shirley swore to Diana Barry that she would be “faithful to my bosom friend as long as the sun and moon shall endure.” Secrets in one’s past, the healing power of the natural world, the mixed blessing of a charismatic friend – crossover themes, all of them.