In Scalzo’s debut novel, a teenager skips a STEM competition to pursue her own interests.
Fifteen-year-old Julia Bissette is an aficionado of fractals (“You can draw a circle with geometry, but you can draw a snowflake with fractal geometry”). She’d initially planned to go to a national conference that awards a monetary prize to the best fractal diagram produced by one of its young entrants. Instead, she spends a Holden Caulfield–esque week exploring her hometown of Washington, D.C., on her own terms. She uses her father’s credit card to check into the Hay-Adams Hotel, and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Julia meets Kal Kovac, a tall teenage boy trying to solve the mystery of why his grandfather never returned from the war. Julia and Kal hit it off, and they team up to investigate his relative’s past—a journey that takes them to the National Archives, CIA headquarters, and, eventually, to the very competition that Julia’s been avoiding. The present-day chapters are intercut with excerpts from Kal’s grandfather’s journal, including an account of his work during secret missions in Laos, and both narratives reach their resolutions in the book’s closing pages. Julia is a compelling protagonist who’s both self-aware and self-indulgent (“I guess I might be in trouble, but for what?”). Indeed, readers may have trouble deciding whether they want to root for her or shake some sense into her. Her relationship with Kal is refreshing, as it doesn’t instantly transform into a romance; they’re strangers united by a cause rather than sudden soul mates. Scalzo knows her District of Columbia setting well, and she develops it in detail throughout the story, allowing both Julia and the reader to become reacquainted with a familiar place. The prose is strong—quiet but evocative—and it does an excellent job of capturing the unanswered questions that drive Julia and Kal: “His isn’t a war story I understand from school and field trips, a Civil War soldier breathing his last breath, Walt Whitman holding his hand at the Patent Office, not even a mile from the White House and President Lincoln himself.”
An enjoyable story of teen independence and exploration.