Longlisted for the Giller Prize this past Fall, I was delighted to see my fellow Calgarian Deborah Willis recognized for her latest book, Girlfriend on Mars. I’ve read and enjoyed her short story collections, in fact my review of her last collection highlights one of my favourite short stories which was the basis for this, her first novel. I’m so glad she chose to extend the story of these characters because they are so compelling to read about, and they find themselves in the wackiest situation it was just screaming out for a longer treatment. Now that I’m busy with my full-time job I don’t often see Deborah around, but we do know each other and that has no way influenced how I read this book – I simply loved it, regardless of whether i knew her personally or not. I read it over the course of one weekend.
Amber and Kevin have been together for 14 years, and now find themselves at a crossroads in their early thirties. Kevin doesn’t leave their apartment much, preferring to stay home and watch movies among their hydroponic weed plants. Amber is the opposite, in fact she’s just won a spot on the reality show that’s sending two winners to planet Mars, forever. Kevin is devastated by Amber’s new adventure, watching the show along with everyone else as the weeks tick by and Amber completes the grueling competitions, vying for a spot on this one-way rocket ship. Even worse is the fact that Amber has a love connection on the show with another man, doctor Adam, and the whole word is vying for Amber and Adam to blast off together in space. Kevin vows to remain in their apartment until Amber returns home, hoping against all hope she won’t win the competition. Chapters switch between Kevin and Amber’s perspectives, so we also learn that Amber is struggling with a desire to please her father after she was injured out of competitive gymnastics as a teen, a promising young athlete whose dreams were crushed because of one tiny misstep. Amber and Kevin’s love story isn’t simple either; she has cheated on Kevin in the past, and Kevin has stumbled upon a replacement for Amber while she’s filming the competition. Will Amber blast off to Mars, and will Kevin ever leave their apartment? I was never sure what to expect, but your typical romance novel this definitely is not.
This book is hard to pin down into one genre, which is one of the reasons why I loved it. I suppose it would fall into the ‘literary fiction’ category, although it deals so heavily in pop culture and relationships that it almost felt like a romantic comedy. None of the paths are easy or obvious here, because it’s clear there are so many problems with whatever the result may be; if Amber wins and she lands on Mars, what will life truly be like up there? If she loses and goes back to Kevin, why are they staying together if she’s cheating on him? He is depressed, and his depression is what Amber is escaping. Amber’s physical drive to compete is admirable, but it’s underpinned by this sad yearning to please her Dad that it’s hard to see it as anything but misguided. And yet despite all this analysis, it’s fun to read about the behind-the-scenes torture of making a reality tv series, so the book never feels too serious.
There are (ironically) many fears driving Amber’s decision to escape to Mars, and climate change is a big part of that. It’s what’s driving the sudden interest in colonizing other plants; we’ve ruined the one we are one so we need to settle on a different planet while this one slowly burns and comes inhabitable. The anxiety around climate change paired with the distrust of social media and its manipulation of society spurs activity in Amber, while it paralyzes Kevin:
“Amber jumped, feetfirst, info the billionaire’s pet project. I loved her for fourteen years and yet I couldn’t save her, not from the exploitation-industrial complex, the religion of fame, the consumerist wet dream, the delusion of repairing a dying world through rocket ships. I couldn’t save her from the System, the most successful suicide cult humanity has ever invented.”-p.291 of Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis
Kevin’s sections read very similar to the above, especially as his depression continues, but Amber’s sections are a cool contrast; she is hopeful, driven to win the competition, and excited about the possibilities of being one of the first two humans on Mars. Pairing these two perspectives allow the reader a sense of balance, but it also points out the absurdity of it all; are things so bad down here that the idea of leaving Earth or staying inside are our only two reasonable options? Of course not, but the author is in on the joke, and that’s what makes it so entertaining.