In Our Own Private Universe, Aki Simon is on a religious-based mission with her church community to Mexico, and ready to test out her own theories of love, sex, and sexuality. However, Aki is bisexual and is only out to her best friend, Lori. Aki is a member of the US-based Holy Life Church, where her father is a pastor. The church trip to Mexico provides a networking opportunity for other branches of the Holy Life Church to meet and talk about issues of faith and morality, and there are also petitions going around for issues like marriage equality, anti-war efforts, and international healthcare.
Though Aki has sat on the sidelines for most of her fifteen years, waiting for things to change, with this trip, she’s ready to spend less time debating the meaning of her actions and start making more choices.
In Mexico, Aki is soon introduced to Christa, a cute, slightly more mature, and experienced photographer. Christa is the first girl Aki has ever flirted with, and their initial attraction quickly escalates into a furtive relationship, complete with secret make out sessions. Yet when Christa reveals that she has a boyfriend, Aki is initially troubled, until Christa clarifies that she and her boyfriend are in an open relationship, which could potentially include her. The journey of discovery for both these characters does not ride smoothly, as neither of these girls are out to their peers or families. Christa herself has more reservations than Aki regarding their relationship because she comes from a conservative family. In addition to the stress of the church mission, hiding her budding romance, and figuring out her on political views, Aki soon discovers that her brother is on academic probation after his first semester of college–a secret he hasn’t yet revealed to their father. And her best friend might be hooking up with a married man.
There is a lot to appreciate about Our Own Private Universe. Talley’s writing is compelling and there’s no shortage of diverse characters and engaging plotlines. Furthermore, the book contains honest conversations regarding friendships, new relationships, race, and religion; it discusses the reality of navigating the choppy waters of teenage sexuality within a conservative religious household. The book has a refreshing view of sex positivity, as seen in instances when Aki searches the internet for information on safe sex and then seeks out dental dams and rubber gloves at her college campus’s clinic. Unfortunately, the various dramas within the book sometimes come off as slightly one-note–often falling into clichés or are too easily resolved. However, to be fair to these characters, they are teenagers—who often do spend a lot of time tending to their feelings.
Our Own Private Universe reveals Robin Talley as a talented and ambitious writer. While there are moments in which Talley’s writing could use a tighter focus regarding storytelling and subtler character development, this compassionate story adds an important narrative to the often overlooked topics of young love, desire, and sexuality.
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