YA protagonist Ollie would love to tackle some traditional teenage angst. No, really. Backstabbing friends, scheming bullies, and hours seemingly wasted in the fluorescent wasteland of a high school are but happy myths to the likes of him. Confined to a secluded house in the woods, Ollie’s fatal allergy to electricity prevents him from experiencing not only the wonders of internet cat videos and humidifiers, but also almost anything resembling a social life.
Moritz, on the other other side of the world, has teen angst aplenty. Born with his own physical difference, he is constantly bullied, as much by himself as by others. Not to mention, the pacemaker that keeps his heart beating is also preventing him from meeting his best friend and penpal—for if the electricity coursing through him doesn’t kill Ollie, Ollie’s magnet-like repulsion will almost certainly kill Moritz.
With their linked pasts and polarized personalities, Ollie and Mortiz’s perpetual distance is only the first of a slew of tests thrown at these star-crossed friends in Leah Thomas’ debut novel, Because You’ll Never Meet Me.
Ollie and Moritz’s friendship certainly begins on rocky ground. Not only is Ollie loud and boisterous (yes, even in letter-form), where Moritz is sullen and sarcastic, but Ollie’s well-meaning advice for Moritz to stand up to his bullies goes a bit sideways. Thus accused of not understanding the big, cruel world, Ollie offers up his story in retaliation—the story of how he has tried so hard to understand that big, cruel world, and how he has fought powerlines and misunderstanding mothers and (worst of all) young love to do so.
For each piece of Ollie’s past, Moritz offers up a piece of his present, until both boys are finally forced to reveal to one another the parts of their lives that they have tried the most to hide away. It is impossible to say much without spoiling what really is a delightful series of reveals throughout the story, but suffice to say that a secret laboratory and all accompanying mad science are involved—as are love, death, and old school hip hop. This slow and steady approach to the novel’s science fiction elements mirrors the protagonists’ comings-of-age in a style that is as gratifying as it is exciting. Along the way, Ollie and Moritz form a bond that has less to do with their shared past, or even their experience of disability and rejection; instead, the strength of their friendship has a great deal more to do with the power of words (and love) to transcend all manner of boundaries.
It goes without saying that Leah Thomas is a very promising new author in the YA genre. The epistolary form is a challenging one to pull off, let alone take full advantage of—and Thomas does so with gusto. In our culture of rapidly developing technology, a form like this struggles to stay relevant (remember when books were being written in AIM-format? Or even notes passed by hand, in a high school corridor?). Stripping away not only Ollie’s access to tech, but also both protagonists’ ability to communicate with their peers, is a brilliant way around the conundrum. At no point did I question the reality of these letters—it’s the unreality of the premise that makes them so true-to-life in the first place.
Ollie and Mo reveal their stories slowly, letter by letter, and the dramatic irony and “you-should-have-said-sooner”’s feel real and well-earned. Besides which, the boys’ letters force them into a level of self-awareness and analysis that few teenagers (or adults) ever achieve. There are as many apologies as there are angsty reveals, as many acknowledgements of difference as there are celebrations of camaraderie. Reading the flawed hearts of these boys laid bare, witnessing their struggle to connect their thoughts and their actions, can only possibly make you love them more.
And I did love Ollie and Moritz—more than I’ve loved a set of YA protagonists in a good long while. Weird, sincere, and brimming over with goodness, these kids bring out the best in each other. Because You’ll Never Meet Me—and the story of strange friendship it contains—is a rare and true delight.
Because You’ll Never Meet Me is available now from Bloomsbury.
Emily Nordling is a fangirl living in Chicago, IL. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and social justice.