Ann Brashares really loves the idea of journeys. Sadly, the idea is better in theory than in execution in her latest effort, The Here and Now, a quasi-sci-fi-romance novel which finds the author of the popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series exchanging a pair of thrift store jeans shared amongst friends for a community that has traveled from the 2090s back to our present-day time to escape a global pandemic carried by mosquitos.
Amongst these tomorrow people is Prenna James, a seventeen year old who is confined by the rules that are in place to ensure that she and the rest of her community do not do anything except live a routinized life and stay connected to the group in every way possible. She’s not allowed to pursue relationships outside of the group, reveal anything about herself to people of the 2014-variety, or in any way shape or form affect the course of history. She can be friendly, but she can’t make friends. She is monitored all the time. She has a counsellor who is deceivingly nice. Her mom isn’t always the most active parent. Somewhere in between all of this is Ethan, a boy at school who is more interested in her than he should be. You know, for safety reasons.
The rules and restrictions are in place so that the community does not further endanger the current and future societies with their knowledge of what is to come, but Prenna has her doubts. Soon enough, she receives intel that will set her on a mission with Ethan in tow that could actually save the world that she has lived in, decades down the road. It’s all just a matter of time.
I think the most successful part of this novel is how Ann Brashares set up the back story of the time-travelers. I found that her explanation of the gradual evolution and simultaneous deterioration of future generations that ultimately result in the bloody, deadly virus Prenna and her community escape from by heading back in time to 2014 is not only scary, but in many ways realistic. This foundation makes other characteristics more interesting, including the biological differences that Prenna and her people carry in comparison to those of today. I really wish Brashares decided to focus on this aspect of her story and develop it more than she did because it would have made for a more intriguing and troublesome context.
Instead, we are served up with a lot elements that are typical of a lot of YA novels these days, including a forbidden romance, a mystery-adventure-mission, and a heavy sense of surveillance. The problem with these aspects of the story is that they are not supported by proper character development. Antagonists are kind of tossed in and out of various parts of the story, there are not really any major barriers to success for the characters, and the romance subplot just appears without any sort of justification or explanation. Ann Brashares expects her audience to just accept Ethan and Prenna’s relationship, even though there is nothing that makes us understand why it really exists in the first place. It’s disappointing that Prenna herself, despite being established as a believable and interesting protagonist, does not end up having much of a character arc over the course of the novel, and maybe that’s because of how conveniently things are set out for her, including an extended middle portion where she finally gets to live like a 2014 teenager, fake i.d.’s and stacks of cash included.
This is the only part of the story where I appreciated some of the sentiments Brashares’ was trying to communicate. This part will certainly tug at the warm, fuzzy heart strings, but I enjoyed it for other reasons. I think there is something particularly sweet (and yes, cliché) about remembering how to appreciate experiencing life in a moment, maybe with someone, and carving out memories and a part of your identity while doing so. It’s the first real, genuine, unauthorized and independent experience that Prenna is able to have, and while that taste of freedom works as a sort of motivation later on in the novel, we never truly appreciate it more than when we read it, right then, right there. It’s odd because this section points out most of the flaws of the story, but it also gives The Here and Now the most heart that the reader will ever get out of the book.