I felt many things as I read The Lightness, which is probably why I’m typing out this review a mere six hours after putting down the book. Generally, I’d let a book marinate. I’d let my mind soak in the words, the narrative, and the pages. Normally, I’d emerge slowly from the world of fiction, reluctantly type out a review, and then return to a world that’s achingly real. But with this book, I have mixed feelings. Feelings that I may forget if I soak for too long. So I’m emerging from the pages and deep-diving into my brain here.
Emily Temple’s The Lightness follows four teenage girls at a Buddhist levitation camp. The goal, at least for these four girls, is levitation. They want to levitate by the end of summer camp and the reader wants them to levitate by the end of the book. Seemingly simple objectives.
The novel’s protagonist, Olivia, is also its narrator, and an unreliable one at that. She comes with her own personal reasons to the camp. Her father is a devout Buddhist who went missing from the levitation camp one year previously and her mother is a devout non-believer–in both religion and Olivia’s father. At the camp, Olivia meets Serena, who is a character who almost seems like she jumped right out of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, looking for something abstract, something she talks about in mysterious whispers. Two more girls from the camp—Janet and Laurel—each with their own personal motivations, join Serena and Olivia to form an unlikely group. Add to this group a handsome, older boy, Luke, and we’ve got our hormonal teenage cast. Luke is sought after by most of the girls in the camp, but especially the four of them because they believe he knows the secret to levitation. They make advances (sexual and otherwise) in the hope that he passes on his knowledge to them.
Temple indulges in Oriental Exoticism right from the start. She brings in a heavy lexicon with her, including but not limited to: ‘the true nature of things’, ‘Real Religion’, and ‘subjective consciousness’. The romanticism of the east feels a little too on the nose, and a little too Julia Roberts from the Pray section of Eat, Pray, Love. But Temple is smart enough to address this within the text itself by having Olivia talk about how she’s come to be “suspicious of American practitioners of Eastern philosophies.” The only hiccup is that this change of heart is addressed too late in the book—but then again, maybe that’s the only way this could be addressed.
The premise of the book itself relies heavily on a build-up, one that Olivia (our extremely self-aware narrator) sets up right at the beginning. From chapter one, we know, as readers, to expect something Big, something potentially Life-Changing. The pace of the book is arguably slow but it’s this tactful creation of suspense that keeps the pages turning. Temple writes with an ominous air and a sense of foreshadowing (though there are certain junctures where it feels like there is too much foreshadowing). The Big Reveal, when it finally comes, isn’t necessarily Big or Unexpected—but it has a pay-off.
This is a high-stakes book. Young people talk about big themes—astronomical ideas and Olympic feats—which makes the characters feel achingly self-aware throughout. This is a double-edged sword: the characters feel dynamic and real but they also don’t sound as simple or as young.
The book tackles a myriad of themes. It moves seamlessly between spirituality and sexuality, from religion to relationships, and from Siddhartha’s Buddhism to Sleeping Beauty. It combines fact with fiction, folklore with fairytale, and desire with danger. For me, the aftertaste of this combination is a little mixed, but Temple’s writing makes for a calm space to stay in. She plays with the reader’s sensory sensitivities. The book feels like stretching out in the sun on a warm day, or the luxurious feeling of enjoying silence on a mountain.
The Lightness takes place over the course of a summer, and the summer, like the book itself, is warm, strange, and a little bit of a drag.