It's time to put my nose to the grindstone and close out these 2009 reviews I haven't quite gotten to. Neal Shusterman's Downsiders was my final read of the year, and a fine read it was for the holiday season. YA adventure, very absorbing, but not too challenging for a time of year when challenging reads should just not be on the agenda for me. Especially this year when I found myself reading this book more than once while waiting to be picked up by my dad or tow truck drivers or any would-be rescuers from my numerous car troubles. Argh. But enough about me, on to the book that kept me distracted from my more material hardships!
Downsiders speculates about a scenario that, though fantasy, seems that it could be altogether possible. Shusterman's New York City is populated by "Topsiders," the people you and I can see if we wander the streets of the city. However, it also encompasses a whole civilization of Downsiders, a community of people who dwell in tunnels and cast-off remnants of the top side that exist deep below the surface untouched by the topside for no less than 10 years. Topsiders live in blissful ignorance of the entire world below them, while Downsiders, for the most part, live in fear of the Topside, drawing near to it only to gather necessities and catch "fallers," those whose hope for a life worth living in the Topside has run out. The two civilizations exist happily apart and unknown to each other until the chance meeting of Talon, a Downsider, and Lindsay, a Topsider occurs with unfortunate consequences for both.
Downsiders' two main characters are believable. Both are feeling kind of disengaged from their own worlds opening the way for their encounter. Talon's overwhelming curiosity about the Topside combined with his desperation to find a cure for his little sister's illness drives him to seek medicine in Lindsay's under-renovation home. Lindsay, having just moved to New York to live with her father and step-brother who are virtually unknown to her, has no friends and a suspicion about the city that makes her all too eager to embrace Talon and his world when they have a run in. Unfortunately, the characterization stops with them. The remainder of the people populating Shusterman's story are a variety of stock characters with predictable traits and predictable outcomes to their situations like Lindsay's oh-so-typical stepfather who's so involved in his work he barely notices her and her full of himself scumbag of a stepbrother. You've seen these characters a hundred times, and little is done to set them apart from the rest of their ilk.
Luckily, Downsiders is not intended to be a character driven novel. Shusterman's alternate New York is vividly imagined, complete with its own practices like wearing watches around the ankle because "time is of low importance" as well as a variety of invented directional terms, and a few unexpected ways of surviving and making a living. In Shusterman's hands, this home for the city's once unwanted and forgotten is inventive and oddly realistic. Downsiders is a rollicking, heartfelt adventure about two worlds colliding and a coming of age story about two characters finding themselves in the context of their own worlds and beyond.