The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

  • Title: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
  • Author: Gavin Extence
  • Publisher: Redhook
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0316246573
  • List Price: $26.00
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner; more here.

Author information: Alex Woods is Gavin Extence’s first novel. His website includes links to purchase the title as well as excerpts from the book. It also includes a short biography, a music playlist of songs Alex Woods listens to in the book, a recommended reading list, and links to videos of the author on YouTube. YALSA interviewed Extence about his book, asking about his use of Vonnegut, literary and musical references, astronomy, epilepsy, euthanasia, and other relevant topics. In the interview, Extence talks about the fact that he always intended for the readership of his book to be adult, but he wanted the writing to be straightforward and accessible, so when his publisher suggested marketing it as a crossover title, he was thrilled.

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly gave this title a starred review, saying it “skillfully balances light and dark, laughter and tears”. Library Journal also comments upon the book’s complex tone, calling it “bittersweet” and saying that it will appeal to a broad range of readers. This title also received positive reviews from publications such as People Magazine, the Observer, the New York Post, and the Denver Post. All of these reviews mention the humor of the narrative as well as the strong voice of Alex Woods.

Readers annotation: Alex Woods is hit by a meteor when he is ten years old. And his life just gets weirder.

Summary: Alex Woods has always been unusual; when he is ten he’s hit in the head by a meteor, which is an unimaginably rare occurrence. Because of this injury, Alex has to deal with epilepsy and is taken out of school so that he can learn how to cope with these fits. When he begins to get his epilepsy under control, he returns to school, but he is a misfit because of his condition as well as the fact that his mother is weird and all of the activities he likes are “gay”. He’s teased and bullied by his schoolmates, and the bullies chase him into a stranger’s greenhouse and then break the windows. Alex refuses to tell on them, so in order to make restitution to the elderly homeowner, Mr. Peterson, Alex begins visiting him every weekend to help with chores. As time goes on, Alex and Mr. Peterson develop a friendship and talk about books, classical music, and their lives. Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a fatal illness and decides he wants to end his life, and Alex promises to help him do so when the time comes. Alex drives Mr. Peterson to Switzerland to a euthanasia clinic and stays with him when he dies, satisfied that the decision he made to help Mr. Peterson die without pain was the right one.

Evaluation: This novel has a strong narrative voice and grapples with some of the toughest questions of humanity, such as the value of human life, the importance of friendship, the struggle of how to fit in and make a place for oneself in the world, and how to stick to one’s morals in the face of obstacles. These questions frame the narrative and make the reader stop and consider her own position on these questions and how they might factor in to her own life as she reads about Alex and Mr. Peterson. Alex is crafted as an entirely sympathetic character that the reader is rooting for, and his voice is genuine and honest. Alex’s friendship with Mr. Peterson is believable and tender, and it shows two outsiders who find solace in their friendship with one another and have an understanding of each other that transcends society’s rules. Their dialogue is at once poignant and hilarious, switching fluidly from deadpanned humor to philosophical discussions without missing a beat. Extence’s decision to start the novel at the end of the story and then go back in time to work up to the climax works beautifully and draws readers in at the first chapter because they are curious to know how Alex ends up in the situation he’s shown in during the first pages of the book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  Extence combines heart and humor in this story, and his characters are vivid and richly portrayed. The ending satisfies, and the plot is strong.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The writing is crisp, clear, and moves the story along quickly, which will likely engage readers and keep them interested. Alex and Mr. Peterson are well crafted characters, and the novel gives readers much to think about. Readers who shy away from darker themes, such as death or bullying, may want to stay away from this title, but those who enjoy tackling thematically heavy works will find much to enjoy in this book.
  • Appeal factors: outcasts, unlikely friendships, bullying, strong narrative voice, euthanasia, coming-of-age, complex themes.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon would be a good fit for readers who liked Alex Wood’s voice. The main character in Haddon’s novel, Christopher, is autistic, academically gifted but socially challenged, and his voice is crisp and straightforward in a way that will remind readers of Alex.
  2. It would be remiss not to suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s works to readers who enjoyed Alex Woods. Like Extence, Vonnegut combines humor with poignancy, and many of the themes of Extence’s novel, such as the importance of friendship and kindness, can be found in Vonnegut’s work. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in particular explores the theme of how humans should treat one another.

Book talk ideas: The strength of the plot should be enough to draw most readers in. Alex Woods is stopped at the border, with an obscene amount of marijuana and a dead man’s ashes in his car. How did he get to that point? In the interest of not giving anything away, a book talk for this title would have to be vague, but it can mention that this title deals with a variety of complex themes, like coming-of-age, feeling like an outsider, unlikely friendships, and the meaning and value of life.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think Alex has a good relationship with his mother? Why or why not?
  2. Alex is bullied by other kids at his school, and he refuses to give up their names when they destroy Mr. Peterson’s greenhouse and Alex gets in trouble in their place. Why do you think he acted this way? How would you have handled the situation?
  3. What is the importance of the Kurt Vonnegut book club in the story? For those of you who have read Vonnegut, why do you think this author was chosen?
  4. Do you agree with Alex’s decision to help Mr. Peterson die? What would you have done in the same situation?

Reason for reading: I was really interested in reading some Alex award winners for this project because I was curious to see if I agreed that these books have teen appeal. Although I know (both from being a teenager and from interacting with teenagers) that young adults don’t tend to let labels about whether a book is for “adults” stop them from reading it if they look interesting, I was interested to see what type of book would be chosen for having special appeal to this age group. After reading Alex Woods, I agree that teenagers will probably enjoy this book as much as adults.

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