I hope somebody is listening...
Synopsis: Frances is a study machine. She is head girl at her school, and her life revolves around exams, homework, and getting the best marks, all in the hopes of getting accepted at Cambridge. That is the path she’s told herself she’s supposed to take. But then she meets Aled, who she later discovers is the voice behind her favorite podcast, Universe City. As Frances and Aled spend more time together, they find in each other the one person they can be themselves around. Aled is usually shy and says few words. Frances feels more like “School Frances” in front of her friends rather than her real self. As Aled and Frances continue to work together on Universe City, their friendship deepens. But then, things in the Universe City fandom spiral out of control, and both Frances and Aled feel trapped and uncertain of what lies ahead for their futures. In the end, though, one thing is certain: there is always someone there who will listen…
This is the theme of young author Alice Oseman's second novel, Radio Silence, which represents an ode to the young generation, who so often feel that they are not truly listened to. I'm a huge fan of Alice's and consider her debut novel, Solitaire, one of my absolute favorites. So when Alice announced through her Tumblr that she would be writing a second book, I knew I had to read it, so much so that I simply couldn't wait for it to be published in the U.S. in 2017 and had to special order it straight out of the U.K. (!)
There's something about the way Alice writes: how it is simple but also poignant, carrying so much in so few words; sentences that make you pause and just sit in the silence for a while, letting the words sink in while also thinking about your own life, about life in general, about everything; and of course the way she portrays young characters in such an honest, multidimensional way. Of course she's young herself, so no one knows better than Alice that young people have a voice and a story to tell...
The themes present in Solitaire—about honest portrayals of young people, about struggling with happiness—carry over into Radio Silence, alongside other great aspects, like a wide array of diverse characters, discussion of gender and sexuality... Not to mention a criticism of the education system and how it affects young people, their overall self-health, and their freedom to choose their own paths. . . Yes, please! While I identified much more closely with Solitaire's protagonist, Tori, there were definitely aspects about Frances that I could also strongly relate to, like the fact that she feels she can't be her true self in front of anyone and that she has this secret side to her, and also the fact that she feels she just genuinely sucks at friendships and always ruins everything (¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Oh, and her friends babying her because she doesn't drink alcohol is spot on for me, too.
Radio Silence is definitely a bit of a different book than Solitaire in that it's much more focused on studies and university. As I'm not from the UK and don't completely know how their education system works, I couldn't always relate to the characters and the whole struggle with A-levels, test scores, and getting accepted into university, but I still admirably tip my hat to Alice for confronting this topic of university and the overwhelming pressure that our generation are placed under to now exactly what we want to do with our futures and where to go, and that if we don't have these answers, we're failures. It's about time someone said, Hey! Academics. Aren't. Everything. You are more than your grades, and there is more to life outside your test scores. You will be okay. For this, and for putting out a novel that teaches young readers that they can take the time to forge their own path, to that I say:
Besides this, Solitaire and Radio Silence have a few other similarities between them, what with the secret Internet project and the Tumblr aspect.
Which brings me to this: This is a very "Tumblr" book.
It's not just in the Internet culture—from fandoms to memes... and I'm pretty sure a reference to Phil of Dan and Phil. There's a certain aesthetic to this book. Looking back on Alice's recent reveal of the U.S. Radio Silence cover, I think it's so perfect and exactly how I pictured Radio Silence all the way through: driving down the highway, the road ahead of you illuminated by street lights; looking up at night and seeing a dark blue sky, the vastness of it; a darkened bedroom lit by fairy lights and the bluish glow from your laptop. It all sounds a bit cheesy, but I love these kinds of scenes, the quiet subtleness of them yet how peaceful they are in that moment, the colors and hues that come to mind when you picture these scenes, and it's hard to explain if you aren't familiar with Tumblr (and following a few aesthetic/hipster blogs), but it is so classic Tumblr, and the overall aesthetic of this novel is absolutely gorgeous.
Besides a non-hetero romantic story arc, Radio Silence also brings diversity in an array of non-heterosexual characters and a few meaningful discussions of gender and sexuality to boot. Radio Silence, the protagonist of the podcast, is even treated with gender-neutral pronouns and described as both androgynous and agender. YAY!
... Unfortunately, there was a part of this that I was a bit let down by. When I first started hearing talk of this book, there were a few praises that kept popping up: racially diverse protagonist, no heteronormative romance arc, and a mention of demisexuality. Now, as someone who is definitely on the asexual spectrum (and possibly also demisexual) I was thrilled to hear this. Finally, a book with an out ace character! I was desperate for a book that showed any sort of asexual representation. Sadly, all the hype about this book and asexuality fell flat for me. Going in, I was under the impression that Radio Silence would actually feature an asexual character that would be further explored and portrayed throughout the book. In actuality, asexuality isn't mentioned until the very end, barely amounting to a paragraph. Seriously, if you blinked, you might have missed it. So in that way, the "asexual representation" that I was so hoping for felt like it was just tacked on at the end rather than being a substantial focus in the novel.
Apart from this, there were a few other minor details in the novel that were a bit "Meh" for me. One of them was Frances's mother. To me, she struck me as a bit too much like Lorelai on Gilmore Girls—that forced, overly different, "quirky mom" type. In this way, at times she didn't quite seem like a real person but rather an archetype to serve as a filler. The other cliche that I just couldn't quite get behind was how Raine would say internet acronyms, like "tbh," in everyday speak. That's sort of where I draw the line with internet references.
All in all, I still loved Radio Silence, which stands on its own as an incredible, beautifully crafted novel with compelling themes and rich, unforgettable characters. Yet again, Alice Oseman does not disappoint and proves herself as one of the greatest young writers of our generation.