This book is not the most light-hearted of teen fiction, but the caper-like feel certainly gives readers a reprieve from the heavy topics.
**Trigger warning for suicide talk**
Cliff, commonly known to Happy Valley High School, is often referred to as Neanderthal, both behind his back and in his presence. He is an outcast and a loner, and feels more alone than ever since his older brother committed suicide. Suddenly, one of his worst enemies shows up at school after a near death experience and claims to have received a list from God on how to save HVHS and turn it into an enjoyable place to be. Cliff accepts Aaron’s proposal and embarks on one of the craziest missions of his life.
I did enjoy the humor throughout this book. It felt very sardonic, at times overly blunt and other times overly existential, which is just my cup of tea, really. A good bit of this story felt oddly forced into feeling like the moral of the story. However, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the experience of confronting bullies and turning the school into an enjoyable place to be. This almost felt like magical realism in a way. Cliff and Aaron would go somewhere, talk to people, and the next day they would disvoer that everything had changed overnight!
There was also a surprising amount of cursing and sexual innuendos that seemed to be part of some of the characters’ main personality traits. I wasn’t off put by it, but I could see how some people would be. The language didn’t seem to be useful in furthering the plot in any way, but it is how plenty of high schoolers talk.
Similarly, the religious aspects were not too over the top. I believe Christianity was portrayed through multiple lenses, both as something that could be positive and negative. Norton didn’t get much more nuanced than that, despite the fact that he made Christianity into some of the major plot points. I think he was trying to go for a bit more nuance with Aaron’s perspective, but I didn’t really get it as a reader.
**There isn’t any direct description of suicide, just conversations around Cliff’s brothers’ deaths and Cliff’s own processing of the emotional baggage. I felt as though the emotional conversations were handled very well and I’m glad Cliff went through both times when he bottled it up and times when he was able to explore and let out his emotions – I think that’s very important to the conversation around suicide. **
I received a copy of Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.