5 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Plus One by Elizabeth Fama

Plus OneTitle: Plus One

Author: Elizabeth Fama

Genre: Dystopia, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Girroux
Publication Date: April 2014
Ebook: 373 Pages

It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts.

Sol Le Coeur is a Smudge—a night dweller in an America rigidly segregated between people who live and work during the hours of darkness and those known as Rays, who populate the day. Impulsive, passionate, and brave, Sol deliberately injures herself in order to gain admission to a hospital, where she plans to kidnap her newborn niece—a Ray—in order to take the baby to visit her dying grandfather. By violating the Day/Night curfew, Sol is committing a serious crime, and when the kidnap attempt goes awry it starts a chain of events that will put Sol in danger, uncover a government conspiracy to manipulate the Smudge population, and throw her together with D’Arcy Benoît, the Ray medical apprentice who first treats her, then helps her outrun the authorities—and whom she is fated to fall impossibly in love with.

Set in a vivid alternate reality and peopled with complex, deeply human characters on both sides of the Day/Night divide, Plus One is a brilliantly imagined drama of individual liberty and civil rights—and a compelling, rapid-fire romantic adventure story.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone (I think?)

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook

Why did I read this book: I’ve had Elizabeth Fama on my radar forEVER. I have a copy of Monstrous Beauty collecting dust on my TBR shelf (I really MUST read that soon), and I’ve heard nothing but praise for her writing. When I saw this new book, I pounced on it.


Sixteen-year-old Sol Le Coeur is a girl on a mission. She’s a “Smudge” – one half of the world population that is only allowed out of doors at nighttime – and the sole caretaker of her elderly and cancer-stricken grandfather, Poppu. Sol can’t even remember her long-dead parents, and the only other person in her life, her older brother Ciel, has abandoned both her and Poppu when he was given the rare opportunity to become a “Ray” (i.e. a member of the other half of the population, who are allowed out of doors only during the daytime). Now, Sol only hears from her brother via censored, government approved text messages – he never comes to visit, not even on Unity Day, and seems to have no interest in connecting with his Smudge family. The worst part of it all is that Ciel has just gotten married and has a newborn baby girl – a child that Poppu dearly wishes he could hold just once before he dies.

With Poppu’s time growing short, Sol decides to take matters into her own hands, and she cooks up a cockamamie scheme to injure herself and get admitted to the local hospital, steal Ciel’s child, and get said child to her grandfather before he kicks the bucket. What Sol doesn’t count on is a keen-eyed Ray medical apprentice (who won’t stop meddling with her plans), and a switched-baby secret plot to foil her plans…

Does that sound a little messy to you? If so, you’re not alone! Plus One is a messy kind of book. It’s an entertaining novel, and I am a fan of the characters and the raw connection forged with both Sol and D’Arcy; at the same time, I was deeply skeptical and unhappy with the arbitrary worldbuilding and plotting choices.

Plus One is the story of an alternate world, one in which the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was so devastating, to the point that society fractured into two camps – the Rays (who can go out during the day, generally the privileged and rich) and the Smudges (the nocturnal humans, generally poor and disenfranchised, who are permitted out only at night). And therein lies the rub; the fundamental flaw with Plus One, at least in this reader’s opinion, lies with this world’s setup. Why would a government – heck, MOST governments! – agree to such a ridiculously silly system? Dividing humans into day dwellers and night dwellers, enforcing strict curfews, conducting mad experiments to keep people from their natural rhythms and depriving half the population of sunlight is… well, ludicrous. While I’m willing to wave aside skepticism when it comes to YA dystopian novels, there must be some logical explanation, some justification for the dystopian setup.

In Plus One, there’s not really much of anything in terms of explanation – and while I appreciate the lack of infodumping and history lessons, readers need some actual justification to buy into this bizarrely polarized world. We are told that The Government (the American government? All the governments?) decided on this ridiculous policy in 1918 to limit the spread of the Spanish Flu. We don’t really know why giving people the right to go out only at night or only during daylight would necessarily halt the pandemic (why not, you know, quarantine the sick and limit their interactions with other people instead of splitting the population into this completely arbitrary setup?), just that it worked. And because it worked, the policy remained in place for decades because that’s just how things are done. Fast-forward to present day, and Ray/Smudge status is maintained by… smartphones. Which the government regulates, by censoring text messages, monitoring the population via GPS, and eliminating all phone calls (On a nitpicky note, why then would you call the thing a phone? Shouldn’t it be a text/email machine? Mini-tablet? Something else, since the actual telephone no longer exists?). I understand that this is likely an examination of our own society’s reliance on smartphones, the dying art of the telephone call, the current American government’s shady policies of spying on civilian conversations in the name of national security… but it doesn’t ever feel complete or even marginally believable in Plus One.

But let’s look past the world setup, shall we? Even if I were to wave all skepticism aside and allow myself to superficially buy into this alternate world, there’s a more insidious problem that the Ray/Smudge divide poses: the rewriting (and erasing) of history. The immediate thought I had when reading the synopsis of this book and diving into its first chapters is the obvious allusion to American segregation – the Day/Night divide is a different form of societal segregation and limitation on human liberty and rights, taken to a hyperbolic extreme. I was eager to see how this divide would be examined through the lens of history, how the relationship between Smudges and Rays would be further complicated by socio-economic and racial lines in America throughout the 20th century. Alas, there’s no exploration of the kind. In Sol’s world, racial segregation seems to be nonexistent – almost as though the entire history of such segregation (even in the pre-1918 period) has been erased and replaced with this superficial dichotomy of night and day. This is to say nothing of the other major historical conflicts and milestones that have happened in our world since 1918 – there’s no mention of female suffrage, of WORLD WARS, of any other political, military, economic, or social conflicts that have shaped our own world. In other words, there’s so much history ERASED in this simplistic vision of the daytime-nighttime world, and that has some seriously problematic connotations.

So, I say again: the core setup of the world in Plus One is deeply, significantly flawed. This is to say nothing of the actual plotting of the book – which involves switched babies, multiple botched hostage-turnover scenarios, secret coded messages and hacks for The Smartphones, and a hyperviolent clan of punk-rock itinerants who call themselves the Noma. The progression of the storyline didn’t exactly win me over.

That said, there are some bright spots to Plus One (I finished the book after all, despite my constant state of incredulity). Namely, Elizabeth Fama’s writing is effortless and easy to read, and the (deeply flawed) main characters Sol and D’Arcy are wonderfully wrought. While I can’t really praise the plotting of the novel and I certainly didn’t buy into the world, I did wholeheartedly buy into Soleil Le Coeur as a protagonist. Her entire plan – to injure her hand superficially, sneak into a hospital maternity ward, and steal a baby for her grandfather – is utterly ridiculous, but it’s in line with her impulsive, do-it-now-and-sacrifice-everything character. Sol isn’t a great planner or deep thinker, but she’s big on emotion and action – and her emotional rawness and strength is the one thing that rings as wholly genuine in this entire book. Similarly, I loved D’Arcy (aka “Day Boy”) and gradually understanding the pressures on his shoulders given his own home life and goals for the future. While romance actually isn’t the main focus of this book, I did love (and believed in!) the way that Sol and D’Arcy slowly fall for each other – a slow burn that gradually builds to a roiling fire of emotion, fanned by their extraordinary circumstances. I also like that for all that these are two teenagers who are SO IN LOVE (and have sex, in an awesomely believable context of emotion and desire), Sol is a realist and knows that they feel a certain way now, but it might not always be like that. Sol knows that she has to pay the price for her actions, and that has always been in her plans. I like that kind of dedicated pragmatism in a heroine.

Ultimately, Plus One is a mixed experience. I can’t say I recommend this book, but I had enough of a connection with the raw emotion and characters in this book to try more of Elizabeth Fama’s writing… albeit in a different setting.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

4:30 a.m.

It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts. It seemed like a fair trade: lose maybe a week’s wages and possibly the tip of my right middle finger, and in exchange Poppu would get to hold his great-granddaughter before he died.

I wasn’t into babies, but Poppu’s unseeing eyes filled to spilling when he spoke of Ciel’s daughter, and that was more than I could bear. It was absurd to me that the dying should grieve the living when the living in this case was only ten kilometers away. Poppu needed to hold that baby, and I was going to bring her to him, even if Ciel wouldn’t.

The machine was programmed to drop daily doses of Circa-Diem and vitamin D into the thirty slots of a blister tray. My job was mind-numbingly boring, and I’d done it maybe a hundred thousand times before without messing up: align a perforated prescription card on the conveyor, slip the PVC blister tray into the card, slide the conveyor to the right under the pill dispenser, inspect the pills after the tray has been filled, fold the foil half of the card over, and slide the conveyor to the left under the heat-sealing plate. Over and over I’d gone through these motions for hours after school, with the rhythmic swooshing, whirring, and stamping of the factory’s powder compresses, laser inscribers, and motors penetrating my wax earplugs no matter how well I molded them to my ear canal.

I should have had a concrete plan for stealing my brother’s baby, with backups and contingencies, but that’s not how my brain works. I only knew for sure how I was going to get into the hospital. There were possible complications that I pushed to the periphery of my mind because they were too overwhelming to think about: I didn’t know how I’d return my niece when I was done with her; I’d be navigating the city during the day with only a Smudge ID; if I was detained by an Hour Guard, there was a chance I’d never see Poppu again.

I thought Poppu was asleep as I kissed him goodbye that night. His skin was cool crepe paper draped over sharp cheek bones. I whispered, “Je t’aime,” and he surprised me by croaking, “Je t’adore, Soleil,” as if he sensed the weight of this departure over all the others.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 5 – Not without some merit, but not the book for me

Reading Next: Earth Star by Janet Edwards

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  • AmyL
    April 14, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    So in a world divided into night and day, the heroine’s name super-subtly means Sun Heart? I wouldn’t be able get past that.

  • Thea
    April 14, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    AmyL – At one point she has to change her name and go into hiding. Her new alias is…. Sunny Puso (Puso, being the Tagalog word for Heart).

  • Jana
    April 14, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    The names, both for the characters and the class divisions, are too ridiculous to me. Soleil Le Coeur? D’Arcy Benoit? Ciel? Smudges, Rays, and Noma? Ugh. All that just feels like an author shoving their cleverness in my face, when they’re not terribly clever at all.

  • Kelly
    April 17, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    I also experienced mixed emotions while reading this, for many of the same reasons. It wasn’t until your review that I realized how much I enjoyed that Sol always understood she would be held responsible for her actions though. It’s nice to have that kind of follow-through.

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    January 27, 2015 at 11:35 am

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