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Love is the Higher Law

Review

Love is the Higher Law

As we recently commemorated the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many of us noted that we were surprised not only that the original emotions of that day can be called up so vividly, but that we are still functioning eight years later, now occupying a future that few of us could imagine on that horrific day. Young adult author David Levithan, recognizing the relative scarcity of fiction for young people centering on 9/11, realized recently that those who are teenagers now were in elementary school at the time of the attacks, that they may be in danger of losing both that immediacy of feeling and the context of understanding. LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW is his answer to that lack, as he poignantly tells the stories of three New York City teenagers who experienced the attacks in a variety of ways.

Claire is in many ways the closest to the events, at least geographically; she and her family can’t return to their downtown apartment after the towers fall. In the weeks following the attacks, she suffers from sleeplessness, walking the streets of her neighborhood, and, in one moving scene, helping a stranger relight the candles of a makeshift shrine at Union Square Park after they’ve been extinguished by a rainstorm. Peter is the only one of the three who witnesses the attacks; he’s skipping school to buy the new Bob Dylan album when he sees the plane strike the second tower. He had been anticipating that Tuesday night up until then, looking forward almost giddily to a first date with a cute guy he just met. But in the aftermath of the attacks, Peter is not sure how, or whether, to love someone new. Jasper is the guy with whom Peter is supposed to go on that date; he feels oddly disconnected from the events of 9/11, since he slept through them, waking up in his Brooklyn home to find the towers already gone.

At first, it’s not clear how these three near-strangers are connected, but it becomes evident over time that they were all guests at what they dub “the last party of Before.” When Claire and Jasper, both insomniacs, run into each other a few weeks after the attacks, they share what will strike many readers as one of those profound moments of connection, a friendship forged by their common yet deeply personal response to a tragedy. And, when Jasper and Peter reconnect at another party, their shared connection to 9/11 --- and to Claire --- gives their budding relationship a solemnity and urgency that it could never have had Before.

The actual events of the September 11th attacks are confined to the 40 or so pages of the novel; the focus here is on how that day continued to shape actions, philosophies and personal decisions days, weeks and months later. A grieving Claire struggles with whether to shut out the world or to let it in, ultimately realizing that such a tragic event actually strengthened her appreciation for humanity: “I think that if you were somehow able to measure the weight of human kindness, it would have weighed more on 9/11 than it ever had. On 9/11, all the hatred and murder could not compare with the weight of love, of bravery, of caring.”

As in many of Levithan’s novels, music serves an important function here, as music fan Peter gets up the courage to attend a rock concert just a week after 9/11 and as he and Claire join the “congregation” at a moving U2 concert six weeks after the attacks. They share favorite songs, lyrics and mix CDs as a way to affirm their common humanity, the connection that they and the musicians have to each other, to their belief that art can both convey and transcend the loss of so much. And, even as the novel closes with troubling reminders of the wars that were waged in the aftermath of 9/11, it also concludes with the promise of hope and love.

LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW will evoke the terrible fear, sadness and uncertainty of those first post-9/11 days for many. But it also affirms the connections that were forged at that time, and how those events shaped the outlooks of everyone who lived through them, no matter what their age.

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Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

Love is the Higher Law
by David Levithan

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0375834680
  • ISBN-13: 9780375834684