As their senior year approaches, four diverse friends joined by their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game struggle to figure out real life. Archie’s trying to cope with the lingering effects of his parents’ divorce, Mari’s considering an opportunity to contact her biological mother, Dante’s working up the courage to come out to his friends, and Sam’s clinging to a failing relationship. The four eventually embark on a cross-country road trip in an attempt to solve–or to avoid–their problems.
Told in the narrative style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes is at turns geeky, funny, and lyrical as it tells a story about that time in life when friends need each other to become more than just people that hang out.
Tell Me More: The sum of things one doesn’t know is always greater that the sum of what one does know, and rarely is that realization more frustrating than in the tail-end of adolescence, when life feels like a puzzle you know you should be able to solve but can’t. As the characters of Randy Ribay’s debut novel find out, friends are often the only people who can make things bearable, and An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes is nothing if not a tribute to friendship.
The tagline states that “in real life, you need real friends,” but it’s easy to dismiss that as a platitude, especially if the characters themselves are immediately likeable. Friendship isn’t about the sunny days or the touching moments. It’s the rough weeks and the irritating hours that become testament to the strength of a friendship, and Ribay acknowledges that: Archie, Mari, Dante, and Sam are all in some pretty bad headspaces and situations when the novel opens. For a couple chapters, you might even question their friendship with one another. What is it that ties them together? Why do they hang around each other, when there’s so much tension boiling under each half-conversation? Why don’t they say the things you, the reader, can feel ready to burst from their chests to each other?
Archie is deeply hurt, though he can’t understand why, by the secret his father has admitted to and the ways his family has changed. Mari is confronted by the inevitability of death and loss, and she refuses to consider anything that might tear her away from her mother, even if it’s her birth mother’s existence. Dante tries to accept the things he’s learned about himself, but it’s a hard road when no one else in his life seems to want to offer acceptance themselves. And Sam? His realization that love isn’t always forever might sound like the least burdensome of this group’s problems, but it’s also one of the things that brings the four friends back together.
Here, Ribay’s choice to style his novel after the perspective-switching of “Rashomon” helps the story along, by providing the reader with an opportunity to step into each character’s world, and to see the points at which that world intersects with their friends. Ribay takes care to set up each segment with a unique and evocative voice, though Mari and Dante’s were the most memorable during my own reading experience. He provides ample page time to detailing their home lives, the cultures they’ve all grown up with, and how that’s affected the way they think and move in this world. Archie and Sam’s Filipino heritage helps to shed some light on their perspectives, while Mari grappling with the re-emergence of her birth mother in a letter highlights some of the tensions felt by adopted children. The intersection of Dante’s identity as a young black man and his sexual orientation leads to some powerful scenes that remind us how much farther we have to go as a society to acknowledging and championing intersectionality.
The dialogue is undeniably vivid and true to life, but that does mean that the characters all say things that will make the reader frown, judge them, maybe dislike them. Sometimes their thought processes don’t make sense right away, as the narrative dips and crests to the beat of their lives. I do think that it’s important to recognize that as a reflection of real life, and the novel commits to that reflection, down to the fights and disagreements and dissatisfaction that can sneak into any friendship. It allows the characters to push at each other in ways that only they can, because of their history, and it reminds us as we read that we too are capable of pushing at each other and hurting each other, conscious or not. But is that where it ends? Mari and Dante and Archie and Sam ask themselves that question, ask each other, and it’s the choices they make, consciously, that hold the novel together. Here, friendship is that proverbial rubber band, stretched taut, a little frayed in parts, but still whole.
The Final Say: An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes is not a YA novel to read for a time and forget. It’s a challenging and moving story for the reader who chooses to walk with it, to lend the story a piece of themselves and to think about the friendships that have brought them to where they are now.
Randy Ribay is a debut author, a book reviewer & blogger for THE HORN BOOK, and a high school English teacher. He can be found in Camden, NJ walking his dog-children, gaming, or making lightsaber sound effects with his mouth.