Summary from Goodreads:
Can love survive a lifetime? When working-class Clem Ackroyd falls for Frankie Mortimer, the gorgeous daughter of a wealthy local landowner, he has no hope that it can. After all, the world teeters on the brink of war, and bombs could rain down any minute over the bleak English countryside—just as they did seventeen years ago as his mother, pregnant with him, tended her garden. This time, Clem may not survive.
After purchasing this book with a gift card on a whim some two years ago, I’ve let Life: An Exploded Diagram languish unread on my tablet until now. And while I recognize some really great ideas and motivations behind Mal Peet’s story here, I’m afraid that I would just as soon have left this one alone for another two years. It’s a book that tries to accomplish a lot in a relatively short amount of time, but the author’s abilities simply do not sustain the complex goals of the text.
The jacket copy describes this book as the story of a boy and his star-crossed romance, which takes place during the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, that’s only a small—very small—section of the book. Life: An Exploded Diagram is, rather, a multi-generational family saga about the intersection of everyday life and sweeping historical events. For a YA novel, it’s fairly off the beaten path, and honestly I’m not sure this is the sort of book that fits in with most other novels in the same age category on the market. Peet tends to focus on themes and ideas that are more in line with an adult audience, to my mind.
Possibly, I would say this novel has been mishelved, not only because of the themes and style, but also because of the narrator. While Clem is a teenager during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he narrates the entire book retrospectively from some point in his forties or fifties. Obviously, the YA-or-not-YA aspect of the book doesn’t really change my opinion, but it’s worth noting.
Anyway, I think the biggest problem with this book is that it’s too difficult to describe what it’s about. Peet has a big, sweeping message to deliver to his readers, which is all well and good, but he fails to ground this message with solid storytelling or engaging characters. I found myself bored or unengaged throughout most of Life: An Exploded Diagram because the storyline that was supposed to import great and profound truths was completely lackluster. Everyone has read doomed star-crossed teenage romances before, and with little to separate Clem and Frankie’s story from the pack, it was only too easy to skim through most of the second half.
And going hand in hand with the uninspiring romance, the other half of the novel was made up of the author’s imagined projection of how JFK and Khrushchev were acting and thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, transitioning between these scenes and the teen romance scenes was jarring and dissonant. I think the author, in keeping with the age category and slightly sardonic tone of adult-Clem’s narration, tried to make the conversations featuring these two world leaders funny, but they just ended up coming across as fake and silly.
In conclusion, Life: An Exploded Diagram is a case of good intentions that couldn’t be achieved in reality. Mal Peet tried something pretty ambitious with this “sweeping” historical YA, but for the most part it all just fell flat. Aside from being impressed with the idea behind the book, I was left mostly unenthused with this book.