Time-traveling, world-hopping literature boasts an impressive best-of list—Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, to name a few—but it’s time to make space for one more: Emily Henry’s YA debut, The Love That Split the World.
Adolescence is ending for Natalie Cleary. She’s spending her last summer in Kentucky with her best friend, her adoptive family, and her ex-boyfriend-turned-friend Matt, before moving across the country to attend Brown University. But all normalcy comes to a screeching halt when Natalie receives a dire warning: she has has three months to save him—whoever he is.
Then again, Natalie has never been normal. When she was a small girl, an old woman began appearing in her bedroom in the middle of the night, weaving stories reminiscent of Native American folklore, biblical tales, and Aesop’s fables. The woman, who Natalie dubs Grandmother, shares her insights on love, loss, and life:
“Sometimes the most beautiful moments in our lives are things that hurt badly at the time. We only see them for what they really were when we stand at the very end and look back.”
It’s in these passages Henry proves her talent not only for beautiful, minimalist language, but also for conveying wisdom with poignancy and the perfect amount of sentiment.
Natalie’s adoptive parents dismiss her experiences with Grandmother as a response to the trauma of being torn from her Native American roots as a small child. But Natalie can’t ignore Grandmother, and so she dives head-first into solving the mystery of who she needs to save, why, and how.
Then Natalie’s world changes—literally. One second everything is ordinary, and the next minute she’s in a town that looks eerily similar to her own, with small differences. Houses and storefronts have changed. Her ex-boyfriend Matt doesn’t know her and is dating her best friend. And there’s a handsome, haunted boy she’s never met before, Beau Wilkes.
As the weeks pass, she finds herself moving between the two parallel worlds and falling in love with the simple, sincere Beau, who composes piano melodies for her and promises a future full of evenings on their front porch with beer-and-cereal snacks.
Despite Natalie and Beau’s adolescence, Emily Henry has painted a connection as deep and real as their adult counterparts’ relationship in The Time Traveler’s Wife. A tragic Romeo and Juliet kind of love. A love at once universal and distinctive. As Natalie tumbles head-over heels, she realizes: “Love is giving the world away, and being loved is having the whole world to give.”
As summer begins to fade, Natalie understands the end of her short, romance-filled season is looming and that it’s time to heed Grandmother’s warning. But she still doesn’t know if the boy she’s supposed to save is Beau, Matt, or even her own dad or brother.
Blindly, Natalie embarks on a journey navigating multiple worlds and moments in time. Don’t try too hard to understand the science or logic behind the tale Emily Henry weaves. Marvel instead at her ability to create worlds—plural—that are more robust and realistic than many of the singular worlds other writers attempt to build. Marvel at her creation of a literary Russian nesting doll, full not only of worlds inside of worlds, but stories inside of stories.
Storytelling is one of the greatest human traditions. While Natalie understands this to an extent, Grandmother urges her to fully comprehend the significance of her late-night tales:
“The stories,” she says. “It’s all in the stories.”
“Everything. The truth. The whole world, Natalie.”
It’s all in The Love That Split the World, too. Love and pain. Joy and devastation. Like Grandmother, Emily Henry proves a masterful storyteller, reminding us how it feels to love deeply and believe blindly, no matter the cost.
FICTION – YOUNG ADULT
The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry
Published January 26, 2016