The world is doomed. The asteroid Persephone is on a direct course for Earth, and we’ve run out of options. Mankind has a week left before the end. And yet life goes on…sort of. For several teenagers on a Massachusetts island, that last week will be a time to reflect, to seek out truths and secrets, and to face the fact their lives are over before they’ve even grown up.
Sienna’s father has just announced his remarriage to a woman he recently met, determined to steal a tiny bit of joy while he still can. Sienna, still dealing with medications and therapy in the wake of a stint in rehab, would rather not deal with her father’s new obsession. When she runs into Owen, a childhood friend, a spark kindles between them and they start a new, fragile romance of their own. But will they be torn apart by familial pressure and obligations?
Zan is still coping with the death of her boyfriend Leo. A chance discovery leads her to believe he was hiding a secret from her—another girlfriend, perhaps?—and she enlists the aid of Leo’s best friend Nick to trace his last steps. Their search takes them to Boston, but the answers they find may not be the ones they were looking for.
For Caden, it’s an unwanted chance to reconnect with his estranged father, who literally kidnaps and takes him to a secluded estate in order to bond for the first time in years. Caden is presented with a choice: return home to his mother and sister to die when Persephone hits, or find refuge in his father’s survivalist bunker, which might just give him a chance.
And that’s about it. Tumble & Fall isn’t about preventing the end of the world, Armageddon style. There’s no heroic gestures, last minute solutions, deus ex machina endings, or desperate evacuations. Like the movie I reference in the title, this is a book about how people face the imminent end of the world, just with more teen angst and less Steve Carell. It’s a “rocks fall, everybody dies” sort of book. If mankind survives the impact, we don’t see it. Tumble & Fall takes us up to that final moment, and leaves us to wonder who lived, who died, and what happens next. For once I figure it’s okay to spoil the end of the book, because it’s essential that you know what we’re dealing with. The only thing “genre” about this book is that a mile-wide asteroid is poised to hit us where it hurts, and the characters have already accepted this, as best they can. This is a book about (gasp) feelings and last minute revelations and romances that bloom in the face of adversity, with a convenient asteroid hanging overhead to facilitate the rather civilized breakdown of civilization and unburdening of souls.
The three storylines barely even connect. There’s a nod here and there as paths cross. Caden, Zan, and Sienna barely even know each other, except through mutual friends and general proximity. For the most part, their arcs play out individually, only really coming together at the very end. It’s a bold strategy to take, weaving the three threads together into one book without letting them actually overlap, and I’m not sure it works, entirely. While it gives the author a chance to branch out and explore more of her world, it prevents the book from coming together as a cohesive product. You get these three unconnected sets of characters wandering around doing things, and no one story affects either of the others.
I think Coutts really missed out on an opportunity here. Even with the end of the world looming overhead, her characters still seem incredibly focused on mundane details, like planning weddings and finding out if their boyfriend cheated on them and meandering around town contemplating their navels. For all that this is an apocalypse scenario, it’s a very peaceful, civilized, even sedate one, with everyone mostly resigned to their fates. While we do see folks building an Ark for survival, or hunkering down in their reinforced bunkers, or just partying like it’s the end of the world, that sensation of doom, of ending, of inevitable destruction, never quite kicks in. One thing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World gets more accurate, in my opinion, is the way civilization breaks down as the inevitable reality sinks in. Coutts’ characters don’t seem to truly get it. Her writing style captures a quiet desperation, but it doesn’t sell the emotional depths needed to properly explore the themes presented.
Let’s face it: if you’re going to destroy the world, it’s either going to be an action piece, a horror story, or a character study. You can avoid a lot of development if you go action or horror—just throw some more explosions or zombies into the mix when it gets slow. But to do character-driven apocalypse, you need to kick the characters where it hurts, make the pain come out. This is mostly about romance with an asteroid-enforced deadline.
Admittedly, that’s the good part of the book. Coutts does a great job with Zan’s story, as she and Nick retrace Leo’s last steps. Who is the mysterious Vanessa, and what is her connection to Leo? What will Zan find when she finally gets to the end of her quest? And will she and Nick ever give in to that simmering mutual attraction? And will Sienna and Owen find a way to make their relationship work before the demands of their families tear them apart? The emotional connections are there, and this would make a very nice slice-of-life teen drama under normal circumstances. Notice I don’t mention Caden’s story arc. That’s because it was by far the weakest. Oddly enough, it’s the one that would best fit an apocalypse scenario, and yet it feels the most out of place by comparison. His father kidnaps him, takes him to play catch at Fenway Park, hires him a prostitute to make him into a man, and tries to lure him into his private bunker to ride out the end of the world. I…er…huh?
Ultimately, Tumble & Fall is disjointed and disconnected, far more mundane than the premise would lead you to believe. It’s a passable teen romance, with all happy endings preempted by a giant space rock, and no Bruce Willis to save us. It doesn’t even have a cool Aerosmith soundtrack. I’m afraid this one just can’t overcome its flaws, despite its earnestness.
Tumble & Fall is available now from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.