In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Cat recklessly defers her admission to Stanford and joins Students Without Boundaries. She is sent to the South American city of Calante, torn apart by a recent civil war. There she meets Margo, a sophisticated urbanite out to pad her resume for medical school, and Taylor, heir to a hotel fortune and hoping to redeem himself after a failed freshman year at college. She also meets Rafael, a local boy battling his own grief and demons, desperate to be the savior he thinks his country needs. As her relationship with Rafael deepens, Cat is no longer sure what she wants or what is right and wrong.
Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold
Publication Date: April 4, 2017 by Second Story Press
At first glance, Undiscovered Country is a YA book with an interesting (yet serious) premise – the narrator’s mother has just died of cancer and so she chooses to take a year off before starting college as her own way of dealing with the devastating loss. Rather than stay at home, she chooses to join Students Without Borders and spend a year working in a small, South American country that is in the middle of a civil war.
I truly wanted to like this book, but there were several issues that I just couldn’t get past:
1. This reads a bit like a John Green caricature. The characters aren’t fleshed out at all and only seem to serve the purpose to be both glaringly diverse and serve as comic relief (the pretty gay boy having difficulties at school, the tiny Asian girl whose parents insist she become a doctor despite her interest in the arts, the extremely religious white girl who finds ways to make statements that relate to God for everything). Get the picture? While there was initially hope that the reader would learn more about these “extras”, they continued to stand in as one-dimensional personalities and didn’t add to the plot (at least for my reading experience).
2. The author had the chance to delve a bit deeper into the South American culture as well as the civil war occurring around the narrator. Instead, the conversations began to feel a bit like a hamster wheel especially when Rafael (the brooding love interest) was involved:
‘I just want to do some good for my country.’ He looks away. ‘Look at history, Cat. When is there ever change, without revolution? Without violence? This is the path I have to take.’
Rafael speaks a lot about this “change”, but the most we learn is that he is somehow involved with local drug cartels in his efforts to fight back against the government. The time spent on the civil war felt very shallow and disconnected from the storyline despite the narrator being quite literally in the middle of it all.
3. For someone who is smart and capable enough to be accepted to Stanford despite having to watch her mother slowly die, Cat seems like quite the vapid personality. I was hoping the book would spend more time on Cat’s year away and what she learns about herself during that time, but any hopes for enlightenment were squashed once Rafael and his pretty boy looks stepped into the picture. Yes, I know she is a teenage girl, but what we are expected to believe about her and how she actually behaves seemed like one big confusing contradiction.
Now I’m annoyed. I’m not tattling on Rafael, who’s been so kind to me. Who’s made such an effort, who has been the first good thing to happen to me in ages. What do I care what his politics are?
I don’t believe the above quote requires further comment other than an eye roll from this reader.
Although I ultimately didn’t connect with the story, there ARE things that I did feel held promise (with a little more attention): The interchanging chapters that go from present-day (“After”) to when her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer (“Before”) were a great format. It allowed the reader to slowly learn the whole story behind what Cat and her parents went through after her mother’s diagnosis while also staying in the present in South America. I just wish more time was spent on characterization than maintaining what felt like a very shallow plot line.
Ultimately, I would have liked to feel more connected to the people in Undiscovered Country. It’s very possible that die-hard John Green fans may really enjoy this book, but for me this novel ultimately lacked the depth I hoped for.
Thank you, Netgalley and Second Story Press for allowing me the opportunity to read this book before its release date in return for an honest review!