Action, tenderness undermine heavy-handed execution in Phil Stamper’s ‘The Gravity of Us’

Bloomsbury YA/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

When Cal Lewis Jr., a 17-year-old rising social media journalist, is uprooted from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York after his father is chosen to be an astronaut on NASA’s Mars mission, he is anything but pleased. That is, until he meets another “Astrokid,” Leon Tucker, and sparks instantly fly.

So begins Phil Stamper’s debut young adult novel, “The Gravity of Us.” While the beautifully illustrated cover depicts a lovely scene of Cal and Leon holding hands, and the romance itself is a cute delight, “The Gravity of Us” is much more than a romance. The novel is also a cleverly paced tale of drama in the age of space travel and mass media.

Stamper’s writing style is admittedly heavy-handed, and this cumbersome directness can at times make it seem like the story’s young audience isn’t being taken as seriously as it can and should be. But the compelling narrative redeems itself in other ways. At any rate, the writing style is at least thematically in line with the plot — Stamper’s direct reporting, after all, mirrors Cal’s occupation as a journalist.

In this story about a self-identified queer kid whose “identity seems to change by the minute,” being queer itself isn’t an issue. Instead, conflict is centered around the Mars mission and what unfolds after Cal and his family arrive in Houston, Texas. And while there are sometimes plot points that seem a bit whimsical, perhaps they only seem so because this digital age is more whimsical than one might realize; these twists only seem unreal when they’re reflected back on a page.

Notably, diversity is normalized in the story, as a diverse range of characters are given meaningful roles and allowed to take part in the action; it’s not just Cal and Leon who are queer, and it’s not just Leon who is a person of color.

Still, Stamper far from renders a utopian world. Mental health, and candid discussions of mental health, play an important part in the story. There’s no shying away from these discussions, and Stamper’s direct writing style actually has an advantage in this particular conversation — there’s no romanticization of these discussions, either. Yet the representation of characters with anxiety and depression is tender and multifaceted, equal parts matter-of-fact and authentic.

It is this authenticity that lends itself so well to making a sometimes-whimsical, quite literally out-of-this-world plot both believable and enjoyable. Cal isn’t without his flaws, but this makes him all the more genuine; the world isn’t black and white in “The Gravity of Us,” and while the novel’s frankness certainly makes readers aware of this, it makes for deeply interesting and layered characters that endear readers to them.

Stamper also takes risks, playing with format and intermittently including transcripts from “StarWatch,” a fictional show in the novel that follows the Mars astronauts and their families as a publicity stunt to rally support for the mission. Rather than distracting from the story, these interludes enrich it, pushing the plot along with critical information. It’s an interesting addition to a novel that is otherwise conventional in format, if not in storyline.

In today’s sociopolitical climate, “The Gravity of Us” is one of those books that can’t help but feel relevant. Even if Stamper’s execution is less than graceful, and references to certain real-life politicians can make even the most elegant of prose seem trite, there is something that feels profound about a story in which an up-and-coming teenage journalist gains most of his following by covering an election. 

As far as debuts go, Stamper’s is one guaranteed to elicit smiles and tug at heartstrings; without a doubt, it is a book that earns it’s triumphs. What “The Gravity of Us” lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in wit, tenderness and one heck of a feel-good story.

Alex Jiménez covers literature and LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.