by Preston Norton
This might just be the most hopeful YA I’d read in a long, long time. What started as a ‘stereotypical’ high school story became everything but, when the school ‘jock’ has a near-death experience and claims God needs him and the school ‘loser’ Neanderthal to turn everything around. Every character started jumping from the page, so complex and fully realized that I couldn’t help but fall in love with them all. A beautiful book to rekindle your hope in humanity!
Cliff Hubbard is a huge loser. Literally. His nickname at Happy Valley High School is Neanderthal because he’s so enormous-6’6″ and 250 pounds to be exact. He has no one at school and life in his trailer park home has gone from bad to worse ever since his older brother’s suicide.
There’s no one Cliff hates more than the nauseatingly cool quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman. Then Aaron returns to school after a near-death experience with a bizarre claim: while he was unconscious he saw God, who gave him a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High suck less. And God said there’s only one person who can help: Neanderthal.
To his own surprise, Cliff says he’s in. As he and Aaron make their way through the List, which involves a vindictive English teacher, a mysterious computer hacker, a decidedly unchristian cult of Jesus Teens, the local drug dealers, and the meanest bully at HVHS–Cliff feels like he’s part of something for the first time since losing his brother. But fixing a broken school isn’t as simple as it seems, and just when Cliff thinks they’ve completed the List, he realizes their mission hits closer to home than he ever imagined.
As I mentioned above, my first reaction when starting this read was to roll my eyes at all the High School clichés. You have the outcast who lives in a trailer park (with an abusive father), the popular jocks, the bullies, weird nerds, drug dealing teens…but then everything changes when Quarterback Aaron wakes up from his coma. He has seen the face of God – who looks remarkably like Morgan Freeman – and God has given him a list to change all this. And he specifically asked for Cliff’s help.
The author takes all these familiar YA elements and turns them upside down, making Cliff one of the most stand out characters I have ever read in contemporary YA. Still reeling from the suicide of his brother, with many questions he will never get the answer to, he joins Aaron in their mission to change the school. At times, the writing feels a lot like John Green’s, and can really pack an emotional punch; the characters are complex and have so much dimension you feel like you can really know them. It allows for the author to surprise you in so many ways.
It’s surprising in its (un)predictability. As a reader of a LOT of YAs, it’s evident an author cannot escape the formulaic nature of high school contemporaries. The way the author deftly manages to pull twists out of this is astounding. At many times I found myself wowed by the depth of the characters: how Cliff remains so hopefully through everything, how Aaron canbe such a good person and friend, how Teagan… no spoilers, I’m just still in awe!
It’s honest, irreverent, sweet, funny, incredibly sad, and still hopeful. Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is an absolute must for fans of YA Contemporary. It’s at times brutally honest, yet so hopeful and relatable that you can’t put it down. Give yourself a mental hug and read this book.
“You know what the most dystopian idea in the world is to me?” I asked. “The idea that our feelings don’t matter. We might as well be robots.”