Light Years by Emily Ziff Griffin
Light Years (2017), Emily Ziff Griffin’s debut YA novel, explores a New York teenager’s coming of age and spiritual and emotional awakening in a world rapidly descending into chaos because of a deadly pandemic. Luisa Ochoa-Jones is an unusually bright 17 year old software coder, on the short list of finalists competing for a coveted fellowship offered by a brilliant tech entrepreneur, Thomas Bell. In her face-to-face meeting with Bell, Luisa demonstrates her prized software program LightYears, which scans the Internet for people’s emotional reactions to a video, news story or other content. But she’s concerned that she and her program haven’t sufficiently impressed Bell. Before the fellowship decision is announced, however, society begins to unravel as a flu-type illness descends. Accelerated Respiratory and Neurodegenerative Syndrome, or ARNS, strikes swiftly and unpredictably and is almost invariably fatal, leaving devastation in its wake.
Light Years has an edgy YA beginning, with copious swearing, underage partying by privileged New York City teens (viewed with combined disdain and envy by Luisa, who sees herself as on the outskirts of their social group because she’s odd and not particularly wealthy), and Luisa’s bitter complaints about her absent yet controlling mother and her anguish about the boy she has a crush on, who’s been sending her mixed signals. As the terrifying ARNS pandemic takes hold, killing friends and family members, Light Years shifts gears to a road trip story, as Luisa decides to head across the country to Los Angeles in search of a man that she believes may be the key to finding a cure for ARNS. I found this part of the novel the most enjoyable, as Luisa, her brother Ben, her love interest Kamal, and their friend Phoebe make their way across the U.S., encountering individuals and groups who have reacted to the epidemic in different ways.
Light Years then unexpectedly veers to a mystical ending that seems to be an amalgam of New Age and eastern spiritualism, combined with a hefty dose of surrealism. It made little sense to me on either an intellectual or emotional/spiritual level. I even read the last fifty or sixty pages of the book twice, hoping for more insight or connection, but didn’t find it any more satisfactory the second time around. The mysterious ending also leaves not just a few plot threads, but really the entire resolution of the plot, wide open. Perhaps Luisa’s metaphysical breakthrough is intended as the final answer. It simply didn’t resonate with me, but other readers may find it more profound and meaningful.
Luisa has a synesthesia type of condition, in which her senses combine, but in her particular case this condition is triggered by strong emotions (“Blue always tastes like chocolate when I’m nervous”). This unnamed medical condition, as well as Luisa’s part-Hispanic and Kamal’s British Muslim heritage, add some diversity to the story. Unfortunately, other than his unusual culture, Kamal is a flat and uninteresting love interest with little personality. So their romantic moment, when it finally arrived, failed to move me.
Still, there is some engaging story-telling, and a thoughtful examination of loss and grief, in between the woo-woo parts. Luisa’s first person, present tense narration gives a sense of urgency and immediacy to her experiences and feelings. Teenage readers may sympathize with her fraught relationships with her parents, her desire to be independent and live life on her own terms, and her struggles to come to terms with the illness and deaths of people she loves.