The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson
Release Date: October 1, 2012
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Just because everyone else thinks you should be over it doesn’t mean you are.
Last year, Sarah’s best friend Jamie died in a freak accident. Back then, everyone was sad; now they’re just ready for Sarah to get over it and move on.
But Sarah’s not ready to move on. She can’t stop reliving what happened, struggling with guilt, questioning the meaning of life, and missing her best friend. Her grades are plummeting, her relationships are falling apart, and her normal voice seems to have been replaced with a snark box. Life just seems random: no pattern, no meaning, no rules – and no reason to bother.
In a last-ditch effort to pull it together, Sarah befriends Jamie’s twin brother Emmett, who may be the only other person who understands what she’s lost. And when she gets a job working for the local eccentric who owns a Christmas tree farm, she finally begins to understand the threads that connect us all, the benefit of giving people a chance, and the power of love.
The Theory of Everything is one of the most engaging reads of the year. Most books I read dealing with the subject of grief are memoirs so this was a pleasant surprise, especially since this is a dark comedy… and I did not know that going in! There are moments in this story when your heart will ache and burn at the raw emotions displayed but there are so many more when you’ll tilt your head in shock at the snark that comes out of our main character, Sarah. What a wonderfully developed main character she is. Sarah is broken. Not lost. Completely broken. Watching her discover, accept, and change the pieces (right in front of her) that make her whole is a journey I think will encourage so many readers to do the same as well.
At times, you’ll be rooting for Sarah and at times you’ll want to throw the book across the room because of how stubborn she may seem. It’s funny, Sarah will remind you of the worst parts of yourself and some of the best parts of yourself. Everyone and I mean everyone can empathize with Sarah in more ways than one. Don’t lose hope because Sarah doesn’t. Nor did the extremely well crafted supporting characters. Boy oh boy do they support Sarah!
As a lover of character-driven stories, I have to say that it wasn’t initially the characters that kept me engaged. It was moreso the situation that drove the characters which brings me to the pacing of this book. It is perfect! Johnson knows how to keep a reader hanging until just the right moment. Right when you think you can’t take it anymore, not getting answers to questions that arise early on, Johnson intertwines the two sides (character & story) so beautifully a few chapters in and that is when you realize this story is a keeper. Also, the fact that there is no love triangle in this YA book makes this book amazing in its own right. I was really intrigued by what Sarah was going to decide to do about her life after her best friend died (this is not a spoiler) and it took awhile for Sarah to decide.
Some of the decision making was done on her own and some decisions were made because of a great push from the people around her and life moving on around her. Life is not going to stop and wait for you to catch up. This is a wonderful story about what happens when someone is stuck and is genuinely trying to catch up… with the help of wildly clever diagrams to introduce each chapter. I enjoyed this book and I know you will too. Especially if you want a stand alone YA book that will both entertain you and hit you with some very thought provoking words, pick up The Theory of Everything today! Also, check out my interview with J.J. Johnson below!
Sarah has quite the mouth on her. Was there ever a time when you had to pull back on the snark? Ever times when you stumbled upon something even Sarah wouldn’t say?
Nope. I let her have at it. As I wrote and edited, the snark appeared more and more, her voice got stronger (and funnier). At some points, mostly with her mom—I think maybe when she says “Heil, Lydia” and screams “I hate you”—my editor was like, Yeouch! Poor Sarah’s mom! But she never told me to dial it back. Because that’s how it is, you know? It gets ugly when it’s real.
Which character would you say has changed the most from the first draft to the final book and how have they changed?
Roy changed the most. He was more talkative at first; he and Sarah had some real heart-to-hearts. They were great conversations, but I realized that the point is that they don’t have to talk. In working together, Roy shows Sarah that he thinks of her as a capable human being. The work and trust creates space for Sarah to heal. Their silence is enough. It’s more powerful.
Do you think Rosemary played a bigger part in Sarah’s journey than even Sarah has realized?
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked! But yes, absolutely. Rosemary is the talking cure, the social cure. She just puts it all out there, everything that Sarah’s been holding in for so long.
The distance (in every sense of the word) you’ve put between Sarah and Stenn is perfect. Did you always know how their relationship would be both BJD and SJD? Or did you find out as you were writing?
I always knew he’d be away at school. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would all play out, but I knew he’d be a good, solid guy—he’s just out of his depth. It’s not easy to stay close to someone who is grieving. Grown-ups in long-term commitments have a hard enough time of it. I needed Sarah to have breathing room, but I also needed her to see how her grief affected a boyfriend. It’s a different dynamic than with parents and family.
For writers who are dealing with grief in their own WIPs and are overwhelmed with figuring out where to start, what to touch on and what not to touch on, how to get it out… what is your advice on tackling this topic?
Whoo, doggy! What a question! With anything that’s so big and abstract, you just need to pick a place and get going. The important thing is to start. General writing advice: start on a day that is different from any other day. My specific advice: keep every thought, every reaction honest. Don’t try to be clever. Readers—especially teen readers—detect insincerity or condescension immediately, and they will throw your book across the room. And well they should. Teen’s minds are too important for bullshit.
Parents seem to be absent in some form in so many YA books, teen dramas, Disney movies, etc… so was this taken into account when you were getting to know Sarah or was that the farthest thing from your mind when settling on Sarah having not only both parents present and active in her life but both parents still married? Why do you think parents are so absent in so many other stories?
The protagonist in my first novel had a single mom she was super close with, and I really wanted Sarah to have both a mom and dad in the house, but that she felt alienated from. I wanted to see how they would relate to her, individually and as a married parental unit. Sarah’s extraordinarily lucky to have parents who not only are still happily married, but also loving and high functioning. But Sarah really just sees them as obstacles, which is what even the best parents can seem to become for a lot of years. Obstacles with wallets.
But you’re right: parents are absent in tons of Disney movies and teen dramas (or the mom dies in the prologue). It serves the purpose of making the protagonist his/her own agent. It’s a story-telling tool of expediency, especially when a main character is a child. But this story, Sarah’s story, is all about her grief and the how it affects the people around her. So I wanted her parents there. And a brother. And a boyfriend. I wanted to explore how sticky it all gets.
I love the diagrams and images leading into each chapter. Did the diagrams go through as many drafts as your overall revisions?
Thank you! I’m so glad you like them. They went through much fewer revisions, probably because I added them after I’d written the book, so there wasn’t as much time to make changes. I’d had so much fun with the epigraphs for each chapter of my first novel (This Girl is Different), and readers seemed to really enjoy them, so I wanted to do something fun like that for Theory. I’m often doodling little charts, and since Sarah is so analytical, it made sense that she would sketch and diagram her thoughts. I love that she incorporates trig and geometry — I had to brush up on my high school math!
What is your favorite diagram? (Mine is 13.)
Thanks for telling me your favorite – I LOVE hearing which one people like, and why. For me, it’s hard to pick a favorite because they all came from different thoughts and places– but if pressed, I’d probably pick the dedication Venn diagram about not wanting to be seen in public with my parents (when I was a teenager). My parents laughed and cried when they saw it. Second place might go to the Party Locator flow chart (Chapter 12), because that is straight out of my own high school experience.
Where was your favorite place to write while working on this book and what stages were you at in the process while there?
I wrote the first full draft in a local coffee shop in Durham: Bean Traders on Ninth. My son was a baby, and when my parents could watch him I would just flee the house. Revisions were in Australia, without grandparents nearby to babysit, so that was total after-bedtime on-the-couch work.
There is a handful of Pop Culture references in The Theory of Everything. Tell us, is there any one that didn’t make the cut?
Oh groan. You’re totally going to judge me on this one. But at one point — VERY early in the process— Rosemary made reference to High School Musical. At the time I totally overestimated HSM’s cultural weight. (I changed the HSM reference to a convo about Footloose.)
Generally, as far as pop culture goes, I reference things that are (1) really good, and/or (2) have staying power. Star Wars is, in my estimation, not “pop” culture but just a general cultural reference at this point. Battlestar Galactica isn’t, but it’s really well done, and it would so be a part of Sarah’s world that it felt legit to include it. And Footloose? That is forever.
*** J.J. is not alone. My younger sister and her friend caught me Twitter stalking all of the High School Musical cast members two weeks ago. They watched me X out of each window. Talk about embarrassing!
The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson is available now.
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