Confession: When I read the flap for Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou I thought I was in for a When You Reach Me time travel story and got really excited. And, while the man who lives in apartment 1986 really does love the 80s and collects all kinds of artifacts from that period, there is no mysterious time travel, just the mystery of families and frustrations.
And, while I am very glad that I read it, Apartment 1986 is the kind of book I usually pass on. Middle grade novels with first person narrators going through family struggles are hard to get right. I find they are either too solemn, too quirky or both. However, there is something about the voice of narrator Callie Vitalis that, even in her naivete, is charming. Maybe it's because, from the first page of the book, Callie is all about mindset, a concept that is huge in the educational world (and my house) and says things like, "I sort of flounce out of the store, and because I have been practicing my flouncing, I think I pull it off." Callie has learned to practice the power of positive thinking from a YouTube guru and applies (or misapplies) this to all parts of her life, which, at the moment, really needs it.
After landing a job with a huge hedge fund where they were, "paying him basically more money than God's deejay," Callie's father has moved his family from New Jersey to the Upper East Side into a swank apartment. Her mom has quit her job as a social worker and is trying to get her homemade soap business off the ground and Callie, a seventh grader, and her little brother Desmond are adjusting to private school. And it's taking a lot of adjusting, especially since Callie's dad has just lost his job because the firm collapsed and both her parents are crazy stressed. The lens of positivity makes Callie an unreliable narrator, but part of the fun is reading her descriptions of great things that turn out not to be great as well as watching her turn bad experiences into good ones.
Callie, who does not believe in "drama before 10 a.m.," tries to handle her problems on her own, but things spiral out of control. Not wanting her parents to be called because she continues to get detention for being tardy (she likes to go up on the roof of the school because, "there are moments when a girl just needs a breath of air,") and knowing they won't be able to give her the $250.00 she owes her friend for tickets to a concert she doesn't even want to see, she heads to her Grandma Hildy's apartment down the block from her school. Grandma Hildy isn't home, but the Time and Newsweek magazines on her coffee table are from 1986! And there is a cassette mix-tape filled with love songs from the 80s tucked into the potted plant outside her front door.
Callie makes the decision to ditch school for the day, and the day after that and the day after that, and finds she has time to investigate Grandma Hildy, the strange things from the 80s (not to mention the man who lives one floor down from Grandma Hildy in apartment 1986) and learn more about Uncle Larry, who died before she was born. She also ends up spending a lot of time in museums with Cassius, a boy who is unschooled and whispers into his phone a lot. As Callie is forced to reveal the truth about where she has been and what she has been doing, she learns some truths, both about Cassius and her father's family, and how hard it is to do the right thing, even if you think you are being positive.
Papademetriou weaves themes of prejudice and acceptance into her story. Callie learns that her Uncle Larry was gay and rejected by her grandfather. Her grandfather also disinherited her dad when he continued to speak to his brother, causing a rift with his mother. As Callie and Cassius wander through the museums of New York City developing a friendship, she makes efforts to mend a friendship with a friend she left behind and also to learn to trust her new friends instead of lying to them. And, she does kind of earn the title of philosopher that she takes on at the start of the book.
Source: Review Copy