And I Feel Fine
There's no way Nicolas Dickner's follow up to the breathtaking Nikolski was going to be as well received. Get cliché, call it a (critic-induced) "sophomore slump." To Dickner's credit, I don't think he even tried to get near that achievement. Instead, he wrote a "novel [that] almost seems intended for teenaged readers." I agree, emphatically. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Apocalypse for Beginners works extremely well as a YA book, and maybe should have been published as such. This isn't to say that Apocalypse is lacking content that would interest adult readers, or that its language is too simplistic; that would be a disservice to both Dickner and YA as a genre. Excepting the Gossip Girls and the Twilights (and there is just as much speedy garbage on the adult shelves), good YA fiction is just as deep and thoughtful as some of the adult novels out there, dealing with topics like sexual assault, eating disorders, sex and sexual identity, drugs, religon... all the biggies that cause angst in both teenagers and adults.
Dickner's heroine, Hope, is dealing with the inevitable approach of a hereditary mental illness, that causes her and her family to think much more about the End of the World than others might. She carries the burden of being the caretaker for her mother, who has been broken by this illness. Her companion for most of the novel, and the book's narrator, is a thoughtful young man named Randall. Randall is living in a world in flux: from geopolitical events (and the new ways in which people have access to information on those events) to the changing model of business (from family run to corporate owned) he is affected rather deeply by events he can barely fathom, let alone exert any power over. While Hope's family has a condition that causes them to pick a date for a literal apocalypse, Randall and other "normal" kids like him are seeing a massive shift in their world, as the Cold War -- and the easy binaries it enabled -- ends (and in contrast, making a real apocalypse less possible). To say that I think Apocalypse for Beginners was misfiled as an "adult novel" is not an insult in the slightest. I think that given the size of the book (less than 300 quickly read pages), the age of the characters in it, and a romantic "relationship more chaste than anything this side of Hogwarts" the novel is pretty solidly positioned in YA territory.
That "chaste" comment above is from the Whitlock review again, and I gotta say, this seems a strange sort of criticism to me. Are teenagers allowed to do things other than give into their hormones? Does it have to be Cruel Intentions to be believable? I exaggerate, but take my point. I don't see anything wrong in not fucking, as long as that's not held up as some kind of moral thing, as in the Twilight books. Randall just seems to 1) be shy about things and 2) care about Hope -- and understand her overly-complicated life -- enough to know that any attempt to add a sexual relationship to the mix would cause her more harm than good. Again, he's a thoughtful, nice boy. They exist, even in high-school. This lack of overt sexual action does also position the book back into YA territory, which certainly doesn't shy away from sex in all cases, but is often able put sex aside for the sake of the story, and whatever central issues it contains.
The reviews have been mostly middling, but I think fans of Dickner (and his excellent translator Lazer Lederhendler, who knows just which French bits should remain in order to keep the reader placed solidly in Quebec) will enjoy Apocalypse for Beginners. It's not Nikolski, it can't be Nikolski. It's a smaller, quieter book; less great, perhaps, but not less worthwhile.