The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper (bloomsbury 2020)
Reviewed by Madeleine Nowak
If I really wanted to do Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel The Gravity of Us justice, I’d pull out my phone and video myself live walking through the streets of New York City while I shared my thoughts with you. To review the book this way would be the best homage to Cal, the wonderful narrator Stamper has crafted, a social-media-savvy, budding seventeen year-old reporter from Brooklyn who suddenly finds himself transplanted to Clear Lake, Texas when his dad is picked as an astronaut candidate for NASA’s first mission to Mars. In Clear Lake, Cal is pulled away from everything he loves from Brooklyn, but unexpectedly brought closer to Leon, the son of another astronaut and the perfect love match for Cal.
The Gravity of Us touches on a lot of topics in a relatively short stress of time. Packed inside the pages, alongside Cal’s story, is everything from commentary on an unreliable press, social media stardom (and influencers), queer rights, and key political issues. The usual run of YA themes is also included, from heartbreak to overcoming failure, and from fractured families to the importance of platonic and romantic relationships. It’s a heroic story, and it ties itself up neatly at the end with a pretty little bow. It’s hard not to fall in love with it, and its occasional shortcomings never fully outweigh its successes.
This is, primarily, because Stamper has done such an excellent job of capturing Cal’s voice. Reading The Gravity of Us feels like sitting down and listening to a teenager tell you about their wild ride of a summer. Two of my favorite lines, which follow closely on each other’s heels on page 294, capture this voice perfectly in how different their tone is, even though Cal uses both to talk (think?) about the same moment. The first is a quick parenthetical: “In a cab! In Texas!” The second goes unexpectedly deep, as Cal narrates “There’s something gratifying about kissing someone goodbye.” It offers a perfect example of how many teenagers can fluctuate between surface-level reactions of joy and surprise, to a depth and wisdom often considered beyond their years.
Throughout the book, Cal’s voice is energetic. It’s sincere. It’s silly and magical and dives deep in the important moments. It’s riddled with plot holes and condescending to the know-nothing adults. It’s dramatic and fun, and everything sorts itself out neatly by the final page. For someone beyond their teen years, it’s an odd read, until you stop and think about what teenagers are actually like, and how they actually conduct themselves. Ultimately, it’s because Stamper has flashed Cal out so well as a character–to the point where I can easily imagine him living and breathing and existing in our world–that all of the faults, the loose ends, of the book can be excused.
There’s really only one main loose end, but it’s significant. Simply put, most subplots take the bench during the middle of the book, and pop up in the end, each nicely solved. On one hand, it feels a little lazy, on the other, sometimes life goes like that if you’re not actively paying attention to your problems. Sometimes they literally just solve themselves. So Stamper gets a pass…for now.
Beyond Cal, excellent, wonderful, beautiful Cal, there were two things that really made me dive in and love The Gravity of Us. First, the laser focus on science. Second, Cal and Leon’s relationship.
Among all the (very relevant) themes Stamper weaves into the work is a debate about meaningful content versus reality TV. Obviously, Gravity of Us is focusing on a NASA mission, so there’s a lot of science involved, all of it plausible. But the media circus circling the crew and the mission is not focused on the science behind the mission; it’s focused on the personal lives of the astronauts. Cal, upon arriving in Clear Lake, takes it upon himself to show the world and his massive social media following all of that science, and proves what a lot of young people already know: science is cool, and the general public wants to know more about it. Knowing the science behind something, the how and the why of it working, is infinitely more interesting than whatever runs surface level, and I love that that was highlighted so prominently in Gravity of Us.
Cal and Leon aren’t science, unless you’re willing to count the immediate chemistry between them. I’ve been going back and forth about how I feel about them, but mainly because the narrative mainstream media likes to sell today tends to be that finding queer relationships–especially those that work right off the bat and continue to work well–are rare finds. There’s almost always some sort of drama that puts the relationship in jeopardy. Cal and Leon’s relationship is jeopardized, but even then, there’s a feeling that they’re going to be alright in the end, and they are.
What’s had me snagged is how easy the relationship is. The two of them fall into it right away. No slow burn. No mutual pining. Just two boys in love. That easy. And I’ve been trying to decide if maybe it was a little too easy until I realized that if this was a straight relationship, I wouldn’t be questioning the Disney magic at all. So Cal and Leon have become one of my favorite parts of the book. They’re lovely and uncomplicated, and it’s easy to take for granted the fact that they’re just two boys in love, trying to figure everything out together, but honestly? That simple treatment of their relationship is what the LGBT+ community deserves, and I’m glad Stamper has served it up.
Ultimately, The Gravity of Us is not a perfect book, but it’s easy to forget about its flaws when they’re weighed in the beauty of the rest of the book. It is an incredible first attempt and I, for one, am excited to see what Stamper will bring in the future as he perfects his craft.