Book Review

The Cartographers

The Cartographers

  • Author: Amy Zhang
  • Genre: YA Contemporary
  • Publication Date: January 31, 2023
  • Publisher: HarperCollins

Thank you YA Books Central and HarperCollins for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. You can find my YA Books Central review here.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: suicidal ideation, depression

As far as I could tell, I hadn’t learned a single useful thing during my first thirteen years of school …

When seventeen-year-old Ocean Sun defers her acceptance to the university of her immigrant mother’s dreams and moves from the Midwest to New York City to live off her own modest savings, she sets in motion a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, immense sadness, and, ultimately, true friendship. And when she meets a boy late one night on the subway—a boy named Constantine Brave—she finds herself charting an entirely new territory.

How does one get from the past to the present? Where is the map?

Ocean knows that without a map, it’s all a hopeless endeavor; that tragedy lurks just around the next corner. And in order to find her way she will need to open her heart, exhume the past, accept help from her friends, and trust herself.

This is an unusual read, different from what I was expecting, and surprisingly heavy, both in tone and material. It places mental health at the forefront of the read, along with the struggle that so many young people face when they transition between high school and college, taking the first steps towards independence.

The story is told through the eyes of Ocean Sun, a young woman who has made the choice to defer college for a year and live independently in NYC, without telling her mother about her decision. It opens with Ocean waiting for a subway train, except the city has been hit with a blackout. She’s the kind of character who is always in her head, struggling with overthinking literally everything, and this goes on for the entire book, making it difficult for me to identify with her. 

When Ocean crosses paths with Constantine, she’s initially hesitant, but he quickly wins her over. There seems to be something pulling them towards each other, and they form some kind of connection in the strange aura of NYC in a blackout. They part ways but begin a correspondence via a Google document, communicating only via this document, meeting up for random nighttime adventures. As a naïve and inexperienced girl, Ocean is quickly taken in by Constantine’s good looks and quirky ways, and how worldly he seems, challenging her mind and introducing her to new experiences around the city, while making her feel protected. She feels comfortable opening up to him about things she’s never spoken about to anyone else, while also being able to communicate more easily in writing than she can in words. At the same time, she is slowly pulling away from her gregarious roommate Georgie and talented Tashya, who are dating each other, leaving Ocean feeling like a third wheel.

We don’t get to know too much about Constantine, other than what Ocean sees of him, but I didn’t really vibe with his character. So much of their communication was overly philosophical and esoteric, and while it never really felt like it was going anywhere to me, Ocean would perseverate over each individual word of these interactions ad nauseam. 

I loved the interactions between the three roommates, and how they supported each other in their strange way. Both Georgie and Tashya are well-developed characters, as vividly depicted as Constantine is left blank, and I loved watching them get to know each other. Ocean also explores some of the difficulties she experiences as a first-generation American, and the disconnect she experiences as the daughter of an immigrant, especially with communication. I thought it was especially poignant when she talked about the constraints of language when discussing certain concepts, and how love was expressed between her and her mother.

While the summary both is and isn’t well-explained by the summary, I found myself struggling with the first three-quarters of the book and then really warming to it in the last quarter. I loved watching Ocean really grow and change, and start to come out of her shell and discover what growing up really means, as well as learning about what friendship actually entails. Overall, the best parts of this book were the way it brought up mental health and the importance of having some strong female friends at your side. 

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