Hi everyone! Me again! Today I’m back with an ARC review – my first 2021 release review! I was so excited to read this interesting take on queer parents and the topic of HIV, but sadly I was really disappointed. Keep reading to hear my thoughts – there may be some minor spoilers, though, so feel free to come back here after you’ve read the book!
Title: Wider Than the Sky
Author: Katherine Rothschild
Genre: Contemporary, LGBT, Young Adult
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Sabine Braxton and her identical twin, Blythe, don’t have much in common. When their father dies from an unexpected illness, each copes with the loss in her own way—Sabine by “poeting” (an uncontrollable quirk of bursting into poetry at inappropriate moments) and Blythe by obsessing over getting into MIT, their father’s alma mater. Neither can offer each other much support . . . at least not until their emotionally detached mother moves them into a ramshackle Bay Area mansion owned by a creepy stranger named Charlie.
Soon the sisters are united in a mission to figure out who Charlie is and why he seems to know everything about them. Neither is prepared for the bombshell they uncover. Confronted with a past both parents kept hidden, the sisters must fight for a path forward and decide—on their own terms—if they can embrace the legacy their father truly wanted.
I hate writing negative reviews, especially for queer books and books by debut authors, but this one was such a disappointment. It follows Sabine as her, her twin sister Blythe, and their mother leave everything behind to move into a ramshackle old mansion with a stranger named Charlie, who just happened to show up in the hospital room when their dad died. Sabine, curious to find out what’s been going on, does some snooping and finds more secrets than she bargained for.
I had such high hopes for this book – the main character has a bisexual dad, polyamorous parents and it discusses HIV (although, despite whoever shelved it as sapphic on Goodreads – it definitely isn’t), which are three things you rarely see in books, particularly in YA. Plus, the premise sounds interesting – the main character is obsessed with poetry, and their father’s legacy sounds so intriguing – but sadly it completely missed the mark for me.
I’m going to start with one of the biggest disappointments of the book for me – the main character, Sabine. Her ‘poeting’, aka randomly spouting lines of poetry, often at inappropriate moments, but always related to the situation at hand, was fun and quirky at first, but soon lost its merit, and it often felt harsh and stand-offish when she began quoting Dickinson right after she had been very rude to her best friend. Speaking of being rude to her best friend, Sabine was just a horrible person. I like unlikeable protagonists and I can appreciate a horrible villain, but Sabine was something else completely (this is where it’s gonna get spoilery). Sabine and her family move into Charlie’s crumbling mansion, that he’s had part of it redone for them, and she is constantly so horrible to him. Her mum never told her what was going on, despite Charlie encouraging her to tell Sabine and her sister, but instead of confronting her mum about it, she decided to steal Charlie’s possessions, break into his house and just make life miserable for him. The house was being re-modeled into a temporary safe-house for LGBT people, which was something that Sabine soon finds out, was both Charlie and her dad’s dream. This particularly makes sense when Sabine finds out that her dad is bisexual and was in a polyamorous relationship with both Charlie and her mother, and that her dad died from an HIV-related illness. But Sabine hates this idea, and is so extremely selfish about her whole situation, going so far as to do everything in her power to stop the project from continuing and causing all of them to almost go without a home. But it’s not after hearing that how her dad died, or from seeing the work Charlie does to help those living with HIV/AIDS, or after visiting an HIV/AIDS memorial that Sabine decides to change her mind and help Charlie with the house, no, it’s after (and I’m seriously not exaggerating here, if it weren’t an ARC I’d include the whole quote) she finds out that her best friend (that Sabine had previously potentially got into a very dangerous situation) isn’t allowed to use her sewing machine in her gran’s house that she realises people may need somewhere else to stay. Yes, really. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – she’s horrible to her twin sister, her supposed boyfriend and her best friend multiple times throughout and somehow ends up on good terms with them all by the end.
The synopsis also suggests that Sabine’s twin, Blythe, might play a bigger role in the story than she did – what with her supposed obsession with her father’s alma matter. But we barely see any of her in the book, and what we do see of her has…you guessed it…nothing to do with whatever it was their dad did.
But it gets worse. Although I am neither bisexual nor poly, the representation of both of these identities felt like a combination of just about every stereotype in the book. Throughout the book, after Sabine finds out her dad was in a polyamorous relationship, she blows the whole situation out of proportion. Her mum was supposedly not happy with the whole situation but would rather marry Sabine’s dad while he was also with Charlie or not marry him at all, and it’s quite often hinted at throughout the book by both Sabine and her mother, that her dad was selfish, didn’t love them and that Sabine’s mum was almost forced into having their marriage this way – yet it was all consensual and there was no cheating at all. It was not an accurate representation of the loving, communicative poly relationships I have seen – and I think the bisexual rep and the HIV rep was even more damaging.
Near the end of the book Sabine confronts Charlie and asks if it was because of him that her dad died of his HIV related illness (first of all, big yikes) and Charlie tells her that when her dad was younger he slept around a lot because he lived in the South, which wasn’t very accepting, and so was looking for that acceptance elsewhere, playing into the stereotype that both bisexual people, and people with HIV/AIDS, are promiscuous and sleep around a lot. There is absolutely no work done in this book to combat the harmful stereotypes around these communities, which would have been so important to see in a YA book that is obviously marketed towards younger readers, but instead it continued to perpetrate these ideas. There is also no discussion on the fact that it is not just queer people who contract HIV/AIDS, and so, inadvertently (at least I hope it’s not on purpose), plays into that extremely dangerous stereotype too. I am well aware that this is still an unfinished ARC and that these portrayals may change by the final copy, but judging by how they impact the plot, I would guess there would only be minor changes.
Although this book was not the greatest, to say the least, I did really enjoy myself when I started reading this book, and strangely enough I think it got me out of my reading slump (here’s hoping). I can see how this book would appeal to younger readers and the author’s writing style is really beautiful, so I am interested to read her future work. But, overall, this is not a book that I would recommend, particularly if you’re looking for good bisexual/polyamorous/HIV rep (but if you are looking for that give me a shout!).