Francesca Lia Block, author of over twenty-five novels including the acclaimed Weetzie Bat series, returns with another magical, mythological YA tale. Set in Los Angeles after a devastating earthquake and tsunami, seventeen-year-old Penelope (Pen) is the sole survivor of her family and travels the American Southwest on an odyssey that mirrors Homer’s epic in plot, if not scale. Told in Block’s distinctive whimsical style, Love in the Time of Global Warming stands out as a uniquely poignant allegory of self-acceptance within the framework of dystopian fiction tropes.
“Allegory” is the best word to describe Block’s latest. This isn’t an end of the world heavy-hitter weighted down with dire realism like The Road. And it probably shouldn’t be, as Block writes mostly for teens. But Love in the Time of Global Warming also doesn’t have the immersive worldbuilding of popular dystopian YA reads like The Hunger Games or Divergent. Accept the opening chapter’s natural disaster—caused by a mad scientist cloning giants deep within the earth—at face value, and focus instead on the catalyst for change it forces upon Pen.
To do otherwise is to be supremely annoyed by pesky questions like, “Why are supplies so easy to find? How come her VW bus can run on vegetable oil straight from a supermarket shelf? Where is FEMA/the army/anyone over the age of 21?”
As a fan of Block’s previous work, I saw a lot of similarities between narrator Pen and her fictional predecessors (which sounds too stuffy for a Block book; let’s call them cool older sisters). Pen is maybe not a typical teenage girl, but she’s a typical teenage girl as Block writes them—painfully in love with art and poetry and cool music and L.A., thin, beautiful, vegan, and, above all, obsessed with Love as the ultimate ideal. There’s the love Pen feels for her family: her scientist father, her nurturing mother, and her ten-year-old brother Venice. There’s the burgeoning sexual love Pen felt for her best friend Moira before the quake and the confusing, consuming love Pen feels for her fellow travelling companion Hex.
Pen also loves Classical Greek stories like The Odyssey. She would often retell these epic poems from the point of view of the female characters. So this is the Odyssey as told by Odysseus’ wife Penelope. But Penelope if she didn’t choose to stay home and wait for her love to return to her. When Pen’s trek across the remains of Los Angeles start to mirror Odysseus’ in updated, modern ways, the novel takes a turn for the fever dream bizarre. There are Lotus-Eaters, sirens, Circe and her drugged wine in Beverly Hills, and there is an angry, giant Cyclops. As Pen searches for her family, whom against all hope she believes is still alive, she picks up stray teens—musically-inclined model Ash, the artistic and sensitive Ezra, and Hex, a feisty, brave boy who turns out to actually have been born female—a revelation that compliments Pen’s own sexual identity.
Nontraditional families are also typical of Block’s work and here the teens are hyper-aware that they would likely never be the heroes of a more mainstream story. And that’s what makes their voices so unique. Block is at her best when describing her characters caught up in the adrenaline rush of falling in love, instead of philosophizing about its nature. The camaraderie between these four queer teens searching for a home together amid the rubble is palpable.
However, the conflicting mishmash of mythologies and modern environmentalism, an astoundingly frustrating deus ex machina and some clunky, overwrought lines (“...I wonder if I’ll ever know chocolate again, let alone the residue of love.”) make Love in the Time of Global Warming difficult to truly recommend for an adult reader. I couldn’t really see much of a deeper reason for drawing parallels between Pen and the titular character of Homer’s great work beyond the coolness factor of having witches and sirens and giants roam around Los Angeles. Perhaps my teenage self would’ve loved it, focused as it is on beautiful boys and girls making out in a romanticized disaster setting, full of bad people to outsmart and free of adult judgment. But the older, crankier me couldn’t get past the simplistic story hiding behind well-described sex, drugs, and monster-slaying.