Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky

Goodreads: Awaken
Series: Awaken #1

Summary: In the year 2060, people hardly ever venture out from their homes.  Increasing violence in schools led to the creation of digital school, an educational program that encourages children to stay inside in order to remain safe.  In effect, almost all socializing as well as education now occurs online and few people ever meet their “friends” face-to-face.  Maddie’s father created digital school and thus enjoys celebrity status, but Maddie herself remains doubtful about the effects of the program even as she enjoys the power the Internet gives her to shape and project a certain persona online.  When Justin, an online acquaintance, invites her to meet in person, she therefore decides to let some of her barriers down and accept.  Her new friend, however, has more in mind than socialization.  He heads the movement dedicated to bringing down digital school and he wants Maddie to help.  Faced with the choice of betraying her family or betraying her ideals, Maddie must decide what role she will play in the upcoming confrontation between socialization and digitalization.

Review: Awaken positions itself as a dystopian novel unique among those currently on the market because it seems as if its story has potential to actually happen—and soon.  The author plays on the idea that society is moving toward an increasingly digital way of interacting and that the preciousness of communicating with others face-to-face and getting to know them on a personal basis will eventually disappear.  She describes teenagers who listen to music wherever they go, failing to listen to those who talk to them; people who prefer to communicate online because they have the ability to censor what they say and thus project a certain image; schools that take place only on the computer because parents fear to send their children to a real one with all the recent violence.  The examples sometimes seem extreme, but most readers can relate to at least some of this.  Unfortunately, despite its promising premise, Awaken fails to address the issues it raises in a truly meaningful way, eventually spiraling down into nothing more than a bad romance.

Awaken gives a number of examples illustrating the ways in which digitalization has isolated people and allowed them to hide their vulnerabilities, thus giving few people the opportunity to truly know them.  However, both the story and the characters dedicated to ending digital school fail to give a concrete solution to these problems.   Instead, the narrator voice interjects occasionally to moralize about the issues presented, with the apparent reasoning that pointing out that something is wrong with people who never see the sun because they use the computer too much will somehow help this troubled world.  This is really off-putting, not least because most readers are already aware that something is wrong when people go outdoors so rarely that they have never even seen their neighbors.  In fact, the kinds of people reading a book in the first place probably have less of a need for this lesson than most.  The author, however, speaks down to them, assuming they have not even the requisite intelligence to deduce the moral lesson from the story without her help.

The focus, however, does not stay long on the problems facing society.  Inevitably it shifts to the near-perfect male protagonist— handsome, intelligent, and brave.  Also old enough to be in college, which makes him a bit of an uncomfortable choice for Maddie’s boyfriend, since she remains in high school.  I concede the age difference is small and will not matter once both of them are a bit older, but the fact remains that it is simply unusual for a man in college to still be interested in a girl in high school.  One has a career and adult responsibilities to which to look forward; the other has prom.  The reader really has to wonder what Justin can see in a girl who exhibits so little maturity.

The answer, of course, is that Maddie is stunningly gorgeous and a near-genius—or so the author tells us.  Maddie seems at the beginning little-interested in her appearance, and I assumed from her insecurities and tendency to dress for comfort rather than fashion that she was your average girl—pretty in her own way, but not about to stop passersby on the street.  Justin the Incredibly Handsome and Extremely Confident, however, finds her so pretty even in a t-shirt and a ball cap, that he can barely speak to her when the two first meet.  Once Maddie realizes her own potential, she tends to dress up a bit—and that is apparently all that is necessary for other guys to interest themselves suddenly in her.  The genius bit, however, is infinitely more sketchy.  The story implies that Maddie has secret abilities with computers against which even the best corporations cannot compete.  Toward the end, the truth comes out; it is rather less impressive.

Even if none of these stretches of the imagination bother the reader, the treatment of the romance should.  It consumes Maddie’s thoughts and energy; she lives to be with Justin.  Justin can think of some very good reasons why the two should not be together, but Maddie dismisses this as insecurities Justin needs to get over.  She throws herself at him, pesters him, tries to break him down to do what she wants him to do.  It would have been nice to see Maddie respect his boundaries and his point of view; she could have reasoned with him if she needed to change his mind.  Instead, she acts rather childishly and tries to lure him in with her body.  In the end, she appeals to lust and not to love.  No girl, however, wants to be used and most, if they are honest with themselves, can recognize that Maddie is heading down a dangerous road if she is willing to do just about anything to get a man.  This recognition makes the romance more than unsatisfactory; it makes the romance a sad disappointment.  The relationship presented is ultimately based on the physical (though I think the readers are supposed to assume heavy kissing is where the line is drawn) and not on much more.

In the end, I could not help but wonder whether the book is supposed to be anything more than a romance for the readers to live vicariously.  The plot is so weak a sequel can hardly be justified, even if digital school remains strong.  Even the romance is weak.  It does not develop tenderly or naturally; instead, in a moment of weakness, the two find themselves in each other’s arms and from there, it’s nothing but physical contact (though often mentioned as having occurred, not actually described).  I am not convinced the author can sustain such a relationship through more books.  I wish I were interested enough in the fight against digitalization to continue with the series, but I am afraid the plot did little to invest me while the characters did much to disappoint me.

Published: 2011

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