The Universe Versus Alex Woods

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
The Universe Versus Alex Woods Book Poster Image
Quirky, affecting coming-of-ager hits life-and-death issues.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The Universe Versus Alex Woods serves up a lot of background information about at least three complex subjects: the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, the medical realities of epilepsy, and the nature of the universe. It also tackles thorny ethical issues -- atheism, pacifism, assisted suicide -- with sensitivity.

Positive Messages

The Universe Versus Alex Woods emphasizes the importance of keeping promises and being true to one's word, even though there might be seriously unpleasant consequences.

Positive Role Models & Representations

With his idiosyncratic and sometimes overly literal approach to life, Alex Woods struggles to do what's right while being misunderstood by nearly everyone he meets. He's a pacifist but will defend himself and others. He's an atheist, but he's tolerant of others' beliefs.

Violence

The Universe Versus Alex Woods does not contain much in the way of violence. In one scene, Alex is bullied on a school bus, has a treasured possession destroyed, and then retaliates by attacking and scratching the face of one of his tormentors, receiving some punches and kicks in return. But Alex is a pacifist at heart, and he foregoes violence for the rest of the book.

Sex

There's very little sexual content in The Universe Versus Alex Woods. Other than the tough goth-girl Ellie, who works at his mother's shop, Alex doesn't spend much time with young women his own age. He and Ellie develop a rapport and mutual respect, but theirs is not a romantic relationship.

Language

The Universe Versus Alex woods contains language that will offend some readers. With one exception, Alex himself refrains from swearing, but others around him indulge in using expletives. Goth-girl Ellie, for example, employs "f--k" almost every time she speaks, as do the bullies who torment Alex at the start of the book. "S--t" and its variants are used a dozen times or so, as are lesser curses like "damn," "hell," and "piss." In one scene, Alex calls one of the bullies a "c--t," and that word is repeated a number of times by Ellie. Alex is told why that word is offensive and is punished for saying it.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Marijuana use plays a major role in the plot of The Universe Versus Alex Woods. As the novel opens, Alex forgets that he's carrying 113 grams of weed across an international border. Alex himself abstains, but his friend Mr. Peterson grows the plant in his attic and smokes it regularly. Marijuana use is not glamorized, but it's presented as a personal choice and of particular benefit to people battling cancer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a funny, moving, and well-executed coming-of-age story set in England that addresses some potentially disturbing issues, including marijuana use and assisted suicide. In keeping his promise to dying American Vietnam vet Mr. Peterson, 17-year-old British protagonist Alex breaks a number of laws, but throughout the book he exhibits a commendable commitment to doing what's right, rather than what's merely allowed. While the sexual content is extremely low, the use of objectionable language is fairly high, though usually not by the young protagonist (he does call someone a "c--t" and is promptly punished for it). Supporting characters are fairly free with their swearing, with ample instances of "f--k" and lesser expletives like "damn," "hell," "piss" and "bastard."

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What's the story?

THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS opens with the 17-year-old British protagonist detained at the Dover border with 113 grams of marijuana in his vehicle's glove compartment and an urn full of human ashes on the front seat. The narrative then backtracks to the previously most significant event in Alex's young life, the day he was struck by a meteorite. The blow left him with temporal lobe epilepsy, which made him even more of an outsider. After he takes the blame for some destruction on a neighbor's property, Alex develops a friendship with Mr. Peterson, a rather secretive and stubborn older man, and winds up making a promise that he will do almost anything to keep.

Is it any good?

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a funny and affecting coming-of-age novel, addressing weighty issues with humor, sensitivity, and insight. Alex is a prickly but ultimately very likeable protagonist, with a unique outlook on life. The novel pays homage to iconoclastic science fiction/literary writer Kurt Vonnegut, but British author Gavin Extence doesn't push the influence too hard. All in all, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a winner for older teens.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Familes can talk about how teens who prefer solitary pursuits are sometimes bullied. Why do you think that is? What can they do to protect themselves and others?

  • Why do you think coming-of-age stories, like The Universe Versus Alex Woods, are popular with teens? What others have you read? What makes an effective coming-of-age novel?

  • What are the pros and cons of assisted suicide? What kinds of safeguards need to be in place to protect patients and their families?

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