Review: Learning to Swear in America

Learning to Swear in America
Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*2.75/5

**Thank you to Bloomsbury Children’s Books for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

This book starts with a good deal of promise. Russian whiz-kid — no, seriously, this kid is Nobel-levels smart when it comes to physics and mathematics. Kennedy even keeps some of the quirks of Russians speaking English; the kind that we Americans turn into a funny stereotype. It runs close to that line, but not quite.

Manic pixie dream girl shows up and whisks him away on a romantic adventure of sorts that doesn’t jive well as it pertains to the actual, I don’t know, impending terror of a massive asteroid hurtling through space to smash into the Earth. One can’t help but want to make comparisons to the Michael Bay film, ARMAGEDDON, except that film at least had Steve Buscemi so that you could enjoy it a little bit. But then this novel tries to pull an INTERSTELLAR and include a good deal of serious mathematics — at least, I assume that it’s serious mathematics, because I’m not much of a math and science student.

Yuri is an enjoyable enough protagonist: he’s the socially-inept boy genius who’s also having a serious fish out of water story as the only Russian on the NASA team…of predominantly Americans…in America. I have a hard time believing that a kid who is effectually locked up in a NASA facility with FBI agents around can systemically escape from the facility with the help of two average teenagers and go completely unnoticed. It doesn’t make much sense, and for a book that’s actually trying to root itself in a level of realism, this entire plot point — which is, more or less, the plot — conflicts with the overall tone.

Another point of question: what year is this supposed to be? So much of Dovie and her family strike me as something more like the sixties or seventies, and even the relationship of Russia and the US screams Cold War. Except there are cell phones and advanced computer programming algorithms…so what year is this? This might have actually worked as a potentially interesting period piece, and it still might have worked as a modern-day YA contemporary. Except this book isn’t sure which of these it wants to be, and that’s disappointing.

Length-wise, it’s too long. There’s not a lot that happens in a good deal of pages — and if they aren’t that many pages, this book certainly feels like there is.

The sad part about this is that there are enjoyable things in the novel: Yuri is actually charming when the story allows him to be, and there’s a beautiful moment involving a discussion of Michelangelo’s PIETA. I had thought that this conversation, one which holds many echoes to the issues occurring within the he NASA team, would reverberate within the narrative. Alas, it is not the case. More’s the pity, because it was the novel’s best moment.

This is a book of charming, but fleeting moments and a protagonist with an interesting voice, who’s plot becomes a little derailed and unfocused. It’s good, and I know plenty of YA contemporary readers who will love it, but its inconsistencies were a little too frequent and noticeable for me to rate it any more stars. That said, I hope to see more from Ms. Kennedy, as she has an affinity for crafting an easily-recognizable narrative voice.

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