University Days by Laura Solomon.
Hong Kong: Proverse (2015).
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
This prize-winning novel is second in a series of young adult novels set in London. The prize-winning first volume, Instant Messages, introduced the characters: 18-year-old twins, studious Olivia and rebellious Melanie, both now starting tertiary education. As well as being an IT student at Imperial College, Olivia is being hassled by a pesky world-famous movie director, keen to sign her up as lead in two forthcoming films – a truly mind-boggling choice. Melanie, alas, begins her career in the Royal Academy of Music by falling into the hot (and overly active) little hands of Mr Dickinson, the piano coach.
The plot is entirely chronological, covering nine months (and a bit) of the twins’ launch into the officially adult world. In keeping with the instant message theme, there are no chapters – rather, we have a series of two-dimensional anecdotes, few longer than one page, often three on a page, keeping us up with the events surrounding the cast of characters.
The cast includes the twins’ Mum and her partner (a successful novelist), their Dad (an unsuccessful novelist) and his partner, both couples teetering back and forth on the edge of permanent commitment, relentlessly sharing their romantic confusions with their children (as we do). There is Olivia’s boyfriend, Bevan, whose father re-enters his life after eighteen years’ absence, without having bathed or shaved the whole time. Various contemporaries have unsuccessful social projects: Evelyn fails at being a prostitute because the guy was unattractive; Hannah fails online dating after admitting she only pretended to be Jewish; the posh girls at the music academy blow hot and cold as friends, once it turns out that Melanie has become pregnant.
Characters skate smoothly over one life crisis after another with no hint of disruption, confusion, or even deep thought. The entire family’s response to Melanie’s pregnancy is rational and measured from the get-go. Indeed, the book as a whole flows so evenly that it is almost an exercise in fantasy: If I had known then what I know now, this is what I would prefer to have said.
I am not at all sure what sub-class of young adult reading I would put this in. It is not a demanding read; perhaps this, along with the book’s addressing almost every known teen problem going, would make it valuable among students who are still working hard at literacy. Or, a teacher could use the book in a creative writing class, saying take one instant message at random and treat it as a plot summary for a three-dimensional story. There’s plenty of raw material right there, and at one end of the spectrum or the other, it could be a winner.
Mary Cresswell is an established poet and science editor. Born in Los Angeles, she moved to New Zealand in 1970. Her poetry has appeared in New Zealand, Australian, Canadian, US and UK literary journals.