I love stories about aliens. I have ever since childhood when I discovered authors like Andre Norton and Isaac Asimov. While sci-fi novels have been out of style and fantasy and paranormal books have reached ascendancy recent publishing trends have me hoping we are about to see that change.
Senior Cara Sweeney hasn’t reached Valedictorian status without kicking butt and taking names. She’s thrown her all into getting where she wants to go and has her future carefully mapped out. So when her principal calls her into the office to advise her that she has earned the privilege of hosting a L’eihr exchange student and throws a kink in all her well laid plans, it is a big deal. It isn’t until she starts talking it over with her friends, though, that she realizes just how big a deal it will be.
Aelyx of L’eihr shares the feelings of Cara’s friends when it comes to the exchange – he wants nothing to do with it. Since he has been chosen for the mission and civil disobedience is harshly punished in his society he has no choice but to participate. He does have a choice as to whether or not his participation will lead to success or failure. Along with the other three student ambassadors he makes plans to ensure it will end in the latter.
Cara doesn’t make the best impression when meeting Aelyx. The dress she has worn to the welcoming event is too small and the spandex she wore to suck her gut in two sizes smaller than that. Finally deciding that breathing and eating trump looking good (a rare choice for a teenage girl) she heads to the rest room to take off the torturous underwear. Unfortunately, the U.S. President beat her to the facilities and she is unable to enter for security reasons. Determined to have the spanx off or die trying Cara finds a dark corner and jerks, tugs, grunts, and swears as they make shockingly slow progress down her hips. She hadn’t intended for it to be a comedy routine and is shocked when she hears muffled laughter coming from behind her. Turns out someone else had staked out that dark corner – the very someone who would be coming home with her to spend the next nine months as her exchange student.
After that rocky start Aelyx is surprised to find himself tolerating and then appreciating the Sweeneys’s hospitality. While the family’s home is full of overstuffed, overly bright furnishings the mom has taken pains to echo the simple décor preferred by L’ehirs in the decorating of his bedroom. Cara works hard at finding foods Aelyx can eat with pleasure or at least comfort and sticks by him as the two attend classes at the local public school. This in spite of the fact that the exchange has been highly controversial planet wide. He is also surprised – and touched – by her loyalty when forced to choose between him and her friends. As he gets to know Cara he realizes that not all humans are bad or dangerous. He can’t help but wonder if he will be able to go through with the plan to sabotage the exchange, destroying communication between his people and hers. And alienating himself from Cara forever.
This is a light hearted look at what would happen if the exchange student you were hosting didn’t just come from across the world but across the galaxy. The differences between culture, education, language, social customs and mating rituals make up a large part of the initial interaction between Aelyx and the Sweeneys. There is humor in these moments, from Cara almost killing Aelyx with her lousy cooking to the competition they dream up when the affection between them becomes physical. The book also looks at one possible dark side of such an exchange having Aelyx be met with the kind of welcome at the school that African American students received at certain schools during the 1960s. It is clear that frightened people are responding with anger and hostility even though the alien among them is technically only a child.
And while I admired Cara for standing beside him I admit that I also blame her for part of that fear and hostility. Several times when she wants to use humor to discourage other students from making unwanted sexual advances to Aelyx or from becoming annoying groupies she tells people ridiculous stories about his biological reactions to humans. I’m sure these moments are meant to be hilarious but I found them a bit disingenuous. Learning that physical interaction with someone is dangerous makes them more frightening, not less. Her behavior would have added to the problems, not lessened them.
Other than that quibble though this story played out pretty much like a typical teenage romance. There were funny moments, embarrassing moments, moments of heat and moments of tenderness. While there is a bit too much adolescent angst in this story for me to be confidant that it will find a home among adult audiences I do think it would be an excellent read for young science fiction fans.