Quiet. Blue-green. Not sharp like red and orange, but deep. Endless. It fills me up, empties me out. Clears out the sludge, the pins and needles, but makes me tense. Restless. I open my eyes. Find his. Adam.
**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post.**
Published: September 2019
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Representation: Jewish, Multiracial (People of Colour), Gay (LGBT+), Mental Health, Interracial Couple.
Content Warning: Physical violence, blood, shame around mental health, bullying, dissociating, allusion to self harm, allusion and description of depression, allusion and description of past suicide attempt, self deprecation, derogatory comments towards women aka “locker room talk”, sexual harassment, homophobic slur (the “f” word).
Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”
Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy—he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.
Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist—who seems to know a lot more than she lets on—and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.
— summary from Goodreads
We want to preface this review by stating that we are both fans of the award-winning audio drama (podcast) that this book is derived from: The Bright Sessions (from now on referred to as “TBS”). The connection to the podcast is undoubtedly the reason why we were both so excited to pick this little YA novel up. It’s also probably the reason why Abarna gave it such a high rating, considering this book falls into some of the stereotypical YA tropes that make Abarna tend to stay away from YA, to begin with.
“What if the X-Men, instead of becoming superheroes, decided to spend some time in therapy?” is the premise attributed by Vox to TBS. It’s a really interesting set up that plays out exceedingly well in the podcast itself; it has its share of multi-dimensional and diverse characters, intriguing backstories, and it’s topped off with a conspiracy-theory-level antagonist that is rooted in a really shady organization that blurs the lines of morality for “the greater good.” It’s great! We would recommend it.
The Infinite Noise is Lauren Shippen’s (the creator of TBS) debut novel that takes place in the world of TBS. This first book follows two of the characters from the podcast; Caleb and Adam, who are the youngest, most innocent characters in the story. It shows Adam learning about his powers, and struggling to cope/come to terms with them with the support of his therapist, Dr. Bright (who seems to have inside knowledge about “atypicals”). To people like us, who are fans of the podcast, picking up this book felt nostalgic. Falling back into a familiar world with familiar characters. It was a little weird to be going back to the beginning of the story, from Caleb and Adam’s perspective (the podcast is from Dr. Bright’s point of view), especially considering what we know about what is to come for these characters. Nonetheless, it was nice to follow them in their backdrop of an angst-infested high school. It was sweet to get to know these two adorable characters a little more, and to be fully privy to the development of their feelings and the growth of their relationship. Their relationship is just adorable. We lapped up every moment of it!
The other wonderful thing is that, for the most part, there isn’t much by the way of homophobia or push back against Caleb and Adam’s relationship. There is one case of a homophobia slur used by a bully; it was used before their relationship began, and as a way to belittle Adam. The use of this particular slur always makes Abarna flinch – it is not a comfortable one. While this case should not be ignored (read: we are not saying there was no homophobia in this book), it is still refreshing to see that by and large, Caleb and Adam’s family and friends are largely accepting and not questioning regarding their sexualities. As we are both queer folks, it is nice to find examples where people are accepted for who they are rather than facing barriers at every turn. While depictions of such barriers are honest, legitimate, and deserved, it is nice to find a more romanticized, albeit less realistic portrayal of full acceptance. It can be a needed respite for folks who face these oppressions in their lives.
Lauren Shippen does a phenomenal job conceptualizing Caleb’s powers of heightened empathy (nearly akin to mind-reading, without knowing one’s thoughts). The association of the emotions he feels from other people with colours (i.e. feeling “red” or “yellow” corresponding with anger and warmth, respectively) helped make Caleb a relatable and easily understandable character. This imagery serves incredibly well for describing mental health difficulties throughout the book. Caleb is sweet and earnest and just trying to do his best. He spends a lot of time swimming in the emotions of other people, which leads him to misunderstand or completely neglect his own at times.
I get a moment of enjoying the silence before something inside of me tries to make itself known. Oh. Right. I have my own feelings. I sort of forgot about those.– Caleb; “The Infinite Noise” by Lauren Shippen
On the other hand, Adam’s character plays out very very differently. He is a biracial Jewish gay kid with two mostly-absent, incredibly secretive doctors for parents. He also suffers from a deep depression. Consider this our warning: as two people who have had very similar experiences when it comes to their mental health, reading the parts where Adam is drowning and unable to function felt all too real. It isn’t the point where it was overtly triggering for either of us – it is still a fairly light-hearted book overall. But Shippen’s descriptions of the depression Adam experiences are incredibly vivid and may incite a visceral reaction in some readers.
In terms of the story itself and the pacing, as much as we enjoyed the book, there was a lot to be desired. The ending was incredibly abrupt and unsatisfying (although we blame that partially on the ebook format, which makes it seem like there are more pages left than there are due to post-book content). There were aspects throughout the story, such as the introduction of certain characters and a hint at the main adversaries present within the podcast, that seemed like they didn’t quite fit into the story being told here. We understand why these pieces were included – they had to fit everything into the same timeline and situations as was seen in The Bright Sessions. But the inclusion of such aspects with no indication of development or full acknowledges left us a bit unsatisfied. We know there are more books queued up for the series, and we hope that these can remedy or at least recognize these things in order to allow for future progression. We wish there was more action in this book; more involvement with the main story that they hint at throughout. We can’t help but wonder if the story will be danced around for the whole series, or if this approach was only taken as such because this was the first book. Is it a way to entice folks to try the podcast, or will the books hold their own? For the time being, all we can say is that we are very excited about future books, but the conclusion of this particular one fell a little bit flat for both of us. Our pondering has more to do with the ending of the book that the entire book itself; it is a good read overall! You can’t help but smile throughout at how sweet both Caleb and Adam are, and at their adorable relationship. You get to see friends and family members doing their best to support our main characters. We would recommend you give it a try – and if you’re inclined towards podcasts, try The Bright Sessions as well!