Classic Review: The Ashwater Experiment

I thought I’d look back at an old review this week, and found this one on a very good YA book I ought to reread!  A fascinating premise with such good characters, I’ve read it several times and always found it engaging!

Have you ever felt that you’re not quite like anyone else around you?  I’m guessing most people have felt that way at some time or another–and that feeling is at the center of The Ashwater Experiment by Amy Goldman Koss.

Hillary wonders if she’s the only person who’s real.  You can hardly blame her for feeling disconnected from the people around her.  She and her parents wander the country in their RV, selling trinkets at craft fairs and never staying anywhere long.  By seventh grade, Hillary has been to seventeen different schools and is firmly settled in her pattern of never making ties to anyone.  So when she finds out her parents plan to stay in Ashwater for nine months–longer than they’ve ever stayed anywhere–Hillary feels trapped.  That’s when she comes up with the Watchers.

What if she’s really the center of an experiment?  Part holodeck and part Truman Show, she imagines that the world she experiences is really created just for her, with nothing existing outside of what she can see in that moment.  At first it’s easy to imagine–everywhere she goes has always seemed to have a pattern, with the same kind of people at every school.  As she stays longer in Ashwater, though, people start to seem more real than ever.

I’ve read this book before, and in the past I think it was Hillary’s imaginary (but sometimes so real-feeling) game about the Watchers that struck me.  This time, that seemed more like a sidenote.  It’s a very interesting sidenote–but the heart of the story for me on this read was Hillary’s feeling of being different, and of her gradually increasing understanding for the people around her.

When she first meets the kids at her school, she easily classifies them and easily sees them as stock characters.  As she gets to know them, she finds unexpected depth to Cassie the bookworm, Serena the society queen, and Brian the class clown.  Even the more minor characters, like Serena’s mother or Cassie’s grandmother, the nasty girl who resents Hillary and even Hillary’s own parents and grandparents, are eventually revealed to have their own problems and motives and complexities.  No one is simple.  And we all feel different sometimes–paradoxically, it’s a feeling we often have in common.

This is another one of those books that reminds me just how good and how deep a YA book can be.  It definitely is YA (or even Juvenile), appropriate for young readers and focused on young adults.  Hillary is in seventh grade, and she has seventh grader concerns: whether the girls at school like her, how well she’ll do on the math competition, whether her parents are weird.  But the larger feelings Hillary struggles with are really universal, and there’s a depth that makes this appealing–even though seventh grade was a long time ago for me.

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