Also by this author: A Heart in a Body in the World, Girl, Unframed, One Great Lie
Published by Labyrinth Road on September 13, 2022
Genres: Coming of Age, Contemporary
Pages: 415 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Harper Proulx has lived her whole life with unanswered questions about her anonymous sperm donor father. She's convinced that without knowing him, she can't know herself. When a chance Instagram post connects Harper to a half sibling, that connection yields many more and ultimately leads Harper to uncover her father's identity.
So, fresh from a painful breakup and still reeling with anxiety that reached a lifetime high during the pandemic, Harper joins her newfound half siblings on a voyage to Hawaii to face their father. The events of that summer, and the man they discover—a charismatic deep-sea diver obsessed with solving the mystery of a fragile sunken shipwreck—will force Harper to face some even bigger questions: Who is she? Is she her DNA, her experiences, her successes, her failures? Is she the things she loves—or the things she hates? Who she is in dark times? Who she might become after them?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- there’s something about Deb Caletti’s books that feel so profound. She takes the teenage/early adult experience and makes it so raw and real and universal, that even a 30-something like me can find it relatable. The Epic Story of Every Living Thing is no exception, as Caletti explores what family and DNA really mean, and how our identities are tangled up in elements that we might not even be aware of.
The story follows Harper, who’s always grown up believing her mom used a sperm donor to conceive her, but doesn’t think much of it until she finds others via social media that look almost exactly like her. Realizing that her “father” is the donor for dozens of children, Harper has somewhat of an identity crisis realizing she has half siblings all over the US and isn’t as alone and siloed as she thought (feelings which were amplified by the pandemic and her mom ingraining a fear of illness/death in her- this was honestly the first book I’ve read that acknowledged the pandemic and I thought it was really well done). Her and three other siblings decide they want to meet their biological father who’s a diving instructor in Hawaii, so spend the summer on the island getting to know him (and therefore getting to know the “missing” half of themselves).
Running parallel to the donor conceived children plot line is the plot of Harper’s career as a social media “star” (although she didn’t really have that many followers to be honest). She’s created a very carefully curated IG presence that is in directly conflict by the significant anxiety she feels almost daily, and costs her real life relationships. Rather predictably, Harper loses her phone to the ocean within the first few days in Hawaii and concurrently deals with social media withdrawal while developing a relationship with her donor dad, grandmother and siblings. This did feel pretty heavy handed and was something I felt like the book could have done without, as the whole “teenagers spend too much time on social media” trope feels overdone and preachy.
Social media aspect aside, I think the story did a great job at exploring the intricacies of the unique situation Harper finds herself in with her family. She’s jealous of her siblings but yearns for connections with them, not realizing they are dealing with their own insecurities. She vacillates between being disappointed to charmed by her father, who is pretty much the polar opposite of her controlling mother. She struggles to identify which parts of her identity are molded after her parents vs. what is uniquely her own.
I’ve also found that lately Caletti’s novels have been set in stunning locations, and this one is no exception! I adore Hawaii, but Harper’s journey learning how to scuba dive lends itself to exploring the beautiful undersea environment of the islands. From shipwrecks to clouds of jellyfish to volcanoes, the silent yet magical world that Harper learns to respect instead of fear is pretty magical.
Overall: I was a bit hesitant at the start of this novel as to if I would enjoy it, given Harper’s social media obsession and the prospect of confronting her biological father. I shouldn’t have worried because Deb Caletti navigates these topics with creativity and earnestness, If you like Caletti’s writing already, you won’t be let down by this one.