STARRED REVIEW
July 2020

The Lightness

By Emily Temple

Emily Temple’s moody debut novel, The Lightness, follows the lives of four bright but troubled teenage girls through a strange summer as they explore some of the dangerous outer reaches of young life and love.

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Emily Temple’s moody debut novel, The Lightness, follows the lives of four bright but troubled teenage girls through a strange summer as they explore some of the dangerous outer reaches of young life and love.

The “panspiritual contemplation community” known as the Levitation Center is no ordinary overnight camp. Located high in the mountains, this “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls” is home to some 60 girls: “shoplifters and potheads, arsonists and bullies, boy crazy and girl crazy, split and scarred.” Eager to escape her needy, abusive mother and haunted by the disappearance of her estranged father—last seen at a retreat at the same center the previous year—Olivia Ellis, the novel’s narrator, soon finds herself in an uneasy alliance with three bunkmates: Laurel, Janet and their putative leader, the enigmatic Serena, who has her own painful associations with the center.

Over the course of the summer, the foursome engages in a series of increasingly dangerous experiments designed to allow them to both realize the fantasy of flight and transform themselves into what Serena calls “beautiful, wrathful, whole new creatures.” Their nightly explorations are complicated by the involvement of the camp’s young gardener, Luke, a would-be mentor whose interactions with the girls, both sexual and otherwise, heighten the tension that skillfully builds over the course of the story. As Olivia reflects on these events from the perspective of early adulthood, her tone is one of mingled fascination and regret, seemingly aware that she has yet to fully comprehend all that happened to her and her friends during those fateful few weeks.

Temple liberally seasons her story with informative bits of Buddhist philosophy, Greek mythology and descriptions of how, throughout history, humans have attempted to satisfy the yearning to defy gravity. For both its mystery and its psychological insight, The Lightness will appeal to readers who enjoyed works like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. It’s an admirable addition to the body of fiction that helps illuminate why adolescence, for all its thrills of discovery, can be one of life’s most challenging stages.

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The Lightness

The Lightness

By Emily Temple
Willliam Morrow
ISBN 9780062905321

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