By: Scott Westerfeld
Darcy Patel accomplished what many teens only dream of. She wrote a novel in one month, submitted it to an agent, and is now under contract to be published in a little over a year. Receiving an advance that boggles everyone around her, Darcy decides to take her newfound wealth and spend a few years living the writer’s dream in New York City. The only problem is that she has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. She will now be on the YA circuit which means book tours, parties with other more famous authors, and finding a place to live that won’t leave her penniless. She will endure sleepless nights rewriting her first draft and agonizing over an ending her editor insists needs changing. All the while, Darcy will deal with the intoxicating, terrifying, and confusing experience of falling in love with a fellow writer.
Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the unexpected ability to walk between the worlds of the living and the dead and the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling- she learns the rules of the afterworld from a fellow spirit guide, a very desirable one, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and protecting the spirits in his care from a cunning predator.
This book has stared at me from my shelf for the last eight years and it was time for me to finally pick it up. Then I realized that I was the same age as the main character when I bought it, and I imagine my view of this narrative would have been very different reading it at eighteen than at twenty-six. Mostly because I tried to enter the book publishing industry in marketing at the age of twenty-two and knew a lot more about the terror of trying to spread a limited budget in New York City than I ever would have as a newly-fledged adult.
Entry-level jobs in publishing still pay less than what Darcy had per year to work with and after exorbitant rent, she only had $17 a day left for food and other expenses. Her experience of constantly being over budget and stressed about money only solidified how glad I was that I never went forward with moving to the big apple. That lifestyle can work for some people, but this book shows, it doesn’t work for everyone. Writing and any career in books is a labor of love. One that most people are not rewarded for in any meaningful way. I wonder if there were other teens who read this and maybe thought twice about pursuing a career in writing or publishing, at least in Manhattan.
The way this novel is structured must be one of the most unique things I’ve seen in a book. The “real” story of Darcy’s life as an author is indicated by regular white pages and the novel she is editing over the course of the novel is indicated by a black border on the top and bottom of the pages. Mostly so it’s easy to tell which section you are in. This black-bordered story is called “Afterworlds” which I will denote with quotations as opposed to an italicized Afterworld which will indicate the entire novel by Westerfeld. The story of “Afterworlds” is likely not something I ever would have picked up since I wasn’t really into paranormal romances or YA growing up. There were some here or there that I read but none that surpassed Twilight and I think that’s about all I need to say about that.
That said, getting to see her story while learning about Darcy’s struggle with navigating the publishing world in NYC is quite interesting. We experience the hardship of being against a deadline for a sequel she hadn’t started, the pretentious ways in which authors promote themselves, how oversaturated and competitive the writing world is, and the difficulty of living the author’s life in general.
One of the things about “Afterworlds” that irritated me was the lack of consistency or explanation of the rules for the flipside, the term for the ghost realm that isn’t yet hell but is the stop along the way. There were also some moral dilemmas like the ethicality of murdering a serial killer or erasing the memories of a ghost that could have been handled with more care and grace.
It’s not a surprise that these topics weren’t handled well when you consider a young woman with no considerable life experience is the one framed as writing them. With that, I give Westerfeld credit because he really embodied the “know-it-all-but-actually-clueless” mentality of a teenager. Darcy is innocent and irresponsible. She’s not good with her finances and, at the beginning of the novel, had never dated anyone yet she wrote a romance novel. I can say honestly that Darcy’s lack of maturity for her age and general incompetence was not charming to me and even at her age I probably would have found it annoying. She wasn’t a bad person, but she wasn’t a likable character either. Darcy is the epitome of a teenager making the leap to adulthood too quickly with no actual plans. Just daydreams and I hate that because I plan everything meticulously. There’s also a lot of underage drinking which I don’t support.
I don’t know if it was for marketing purposes, but the fact that this is an LGBTQ novel is never mentioned except in the story. Darcy ends up having her first relationship with another writer, Imogen who is an openly lesbian character. Imogen writes a novel that has a girl-on-girl kiss scene and talks about how it was received poorly by many readers because they weren’t expecting it. Such content was considered “controversial” so it wasn’t in the marketing for her book. This point was a little too meta for me because obviously, Westerfeld didn’t include that in his marketing either. Was he or his publisher worried about scaring off potential sales if they made it an openly lesbian book? Afterworlds also never touches on how Darcy is in a relationship with a woman but wrote a more classically accepted romance of a woman and a man. Imogen doesn’t even bring it up even though Darcy never had any romantic relationships with men. What is Westerfeld trying to say about publishing because LGBTQ books are hot right now but maybe they weren’t 8 years ago? I just found the whole situation rather bizarre.
There is also the fact that Darcy is an Indian woman who borrowed from her parent’s religion to create the love interest Yama for her novel. The character, Lizzie, is white and it’s implied that the reason Darcy decided on this was because she wanted Yama to be exotic and alluring. Despite the push that many authors of color have for “own voices” books today, this white washing was pointed out without much shock. Keep in mind though that Darcy isn’t a real person so Westerfeld made the conscious decision for Darcy to write a white main female character with no real reason. It felt almost like an after thought on Darcy’s part whereas I think people of color would take that a lot more seriously today. At least I would certainly hope that an author of color wouldn’t decide to write a white main character just so their book will sell more copies.
There were some surprising moments of insight that Westerfeld offered about how publishers think like on page 119 where Darcy and her girlfriend Imogen talk about book sales and what makes a book successful. For reference, Kiralee is a fictional author in universe who Darcy is a huge fan of.
“Whoa,” Imogen said when Darcy was done explaining the budget. “You’re rich!”
“I know. Crazy lucky, right…I know everything I write won’t sell for that much.”
“Yeah you never know,” Imogen said. “Kiralee’s books haven’t done well since Bunyip.”
Darcy looked up from her noodles. “Really? I thought Coleman was kidding the other night.”
“Nope. He says Kiralee’s books only sell about ten thousand copies each,” Imogen said.
“That sucks.” Darcy wasn’t sure exactly what that number meant, but it sounded low compared to her own advance [$300,000 for two books]. “And it’s scary. If a writer like Kiralee can’t sell books, how am I supposed to? I mean, everyone I know has read all her books.”
“The people you know read books.” Imogen gave a shrug. “But Bunyip broke into a much bigger demographic- people who don’t read books. Or, they read maybe one a year. Coleman says that’s where the money is in publishing-people who don’t read.”
“Whoa. That explains a lot about the bestseller list.”
Even as in tune with the publishing industry as I am, that was news to me and a fresh perspective. Later in the story, Imogen is on a book tour where she signs hundreds of copies for her debut novel only for the next chapter to fast forward two months later when sales have plummeted. Imogen then flies into a frenzy with fear that her trilogy will get canceled if she doesn’t make the remaining books incredible. The publishing industry is fickle, and deals can be revoked if the publishing house doesn’t recoup its money from an author’s advance. This cutthroat process makes sense because a company wouldn’t want to keep investing in authors that don’t generate revenue, especially with how low margins are for books. Margins aren’t talked about here, but I know from my research that this is the case.
I don’t know that I could ever write a novel because I prefer to read but it certainly doesn’t make the effort sound enticing. The book swings back and forth between glamorous and career-ending.
Personally, I don’t think either book would have been good as a stand-alone story. We need the context of Darcy’s life and how that shapes the story of Lizzie to be impactful. I wouldn’t have cared about some teenager going and struggling to edit a novel in NYC if I didn’t know what novel she was writing. It would have made for extremely boring contemporary fiction. Half of the fun for me was realizing that we, the reader, are experiencing the final “polished” copy of “Afterworlds” rather than seeing any of the edits Darcy talks about throughout the novel. It means her original copy doesn’t really exist anymore because she changed so much of it, and that was wild. After hearing her talk about the struggle to revise the ending to her novel for so long, I wanted to know what she settled on for the final chapter and that motivated me to complete Afterworlds.
And I don’t think “Afterworlds” would hold up on its own because it lacks the flow I would want if you only kept the black border pages. Darcy learns after her book goes to copy editing that she is horrible at writing characters because her characters have no depth or detailed descriptions. Lizzie’s friend Jamie lives with her dad, has a car, and is generally supportive but we know nothing beyond that. We don’t even know what Lizzie’s character looks like because she lacks almost any physical description. It just wasn’t that great as a final copy which is amusing to me because I don’t know if Westerfeld was in on the joke that YA is generally looked down on as juvenile and less emotionally mature than adult novels, but he managed to write two in one book.
I would be interested to see if there was anyone who read the white sections as a whole and then the black sections without alternating between them. Perhaps that would have made a difference, but I’m not about to read 600 pages to find out.
Finally, I just want to say that this novel was better than a simple 3 stars because Darcy does show some growth throughout the story, but I would still say she is quite naïve at the end. I did think she changed for the better, and she was finally starting to find herself a little along the way. I don’t think I’ll be recommending this to anyone unless they want a story about the inside world of YA fiction.
Overall rating: 3.5