Wooten’s novel is an earnest coming-of-age tale as well as an inventive look at the contested borderland between science and faith.
Teenage Max is every parent’s dream: whip smart, he tutors his classmates in math and chomps at the bit to sign up for college science; a hard worker, he puts in extra hours at the local grocery store to help out his parents; he drives old ladies to church and helps them pay for food out of his meager salary; and he’s a devout Christian who attends his father’s parish every Sunday morning and can cite the Bible chapter and verse. But he’s also headed off to college, and his parents fear that the temptations of university life will change their boy wonder. Wooten’s tale tracks Max’s first year at Cedarbluff, a Christian college in Ohio. At Cedarbluff, Max befriends the Falstaffian Rollo, falls for the pugnacious Julie and battles fellow pastor’s son Brad in scriptural debate. But his most compelling interactions are with Professor Nowak, a physics teacher who tasks each new crop of students with the “Near Impossible Assignment,” a semester-long project intended to challenge and confound. Max’s assignment is simple: magnetize a lead ball. But the experiments he undertakes will bend the laws of nature, test his fledgling faith and upend his life. With Max, Wooten delivers a well-rounded, believable protagonist, and he surrounds his hero with compelling foils and game foes. Wooten’s dialogue is true-to-life, and his feel for pacing and dramatic tension is excellent. However, certain details feel a bit off—Max’s high-school mentee has to teach him how to text, his family has dial-up Internet and he has to take college algebra if he wants to qualify for an advanced physics course. (Most boy geniuses probably knocked algebra out of the park around age 13.) But these are small ripples that barely disturb the flow of this very strong young-adult fiction. Nearly impossible to put down.