Review: Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe – Hilarious and Life-Affirming

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe
Author: Preston Norton
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Speculative
Page Count: 416 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10


Life is more than just existing. And it’s more than just a door with death and nothingness on the other side. Life is a series of doors. Every moment, every decision, is a door. And by opening them and stepping into the unknown, we are expanding and illuminating a world that we never knew existed. But if we never open those doors? If we stay put? We’ll be living in a world of walls.

Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side?

This book is a 400-page love letter to life. It’s like a rib-crushing hug that says, “I believe in you. Whatever you’re going through now, I believe you can push through it and come out on the other side stronger.” Ridiculous, witty, heartwarming, and full of wisdom dressed up in laugh-out-loud–sometimes over-the-top– humour, Preston Norton has written an indelible story of friendship, love, and what it means to live.

Cliff Hubbard is going through the worst year of his 16-year old life. On top of dealing with highschool bullying (he’s nicknamed “Neanderthal” for being 6’6 and 250 pounds), he has to face ongoing abuse from his father and the never-ending grief of losing his brother to suicide a year ago. Then one day, his arch-nemesis Aaron Zimmerson approaches him after a near-death experience and claims that he has met God (who inexplicably sounds like Morgan Freeman) and that God has given him a To-Do List of sorts. One that would make Happy Valley High a much better place. And guess whose help he needs?

First and foremost, the prose is absolute perfection. Humour, the kind that has you devolving into helpless laughter, is incredibly hard to nail. What’s even harder is to combine it with smart, no-nonsense wit. And what’s even harder is to transition from that humour into serious poignancy within a matter of a few sentences without it being jarring. And Norton nails that. There are so many moments that had me giggling to misty-eyed in a matter of seconds. Cliff’s narration finds the right balance of sarcasm and self-deprecation, and the metaphors and imagery he uses are inventive and so, so on-point.

“So…you don’t like the List.”

“I feel like the stupidity of the whole thing is burning a hole in my cerebral cortex. I’m trying to figure out which part is the dumbest, but the levels of stupidity for each point are so astronomical, I wonder if two of ideas bumped together, the universe might implode in a reverse Big Bang, and life as we know it would vacuum into a supermassive black hole and disappear from existence.”

The book also uses pop culture references in a way that doesn’t make me cringe, which is kind of a rarity. I’m not sure why YA contemporary writers have the idea that teenagers are these reference-spewing machines, but I figure if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well. And Norton does it pretty damn well. My heart positively fluttered at seeing how 2001: Space Odyssey got woven into the main storyline.

I also loved the way it touches on the complexity of parent-child relationships. Cliff’s mother is a very kind, very loving woman when it comes to every aspect of his life except for one: his abusive father. With her, Norton pitches the question of how your parents can be so supportive and wonderful in certain aspects, but not so in others. And as with everything else, Cliff puts it perfectly:

“In times of peace, she was Mother of the Year. In times of war, she was a mannequin.”

So what does this make her? A bad parent? An enabler of abuse? A victim? There’s no one satisfactory answer. Part of growing up is realizing that your parents are very, painfully human, that they make very human mistakes, and that sometimes they’re just as lost as you are. And Norton explores this with pitch-perfection.

Most importantly, though, Neanderthal shines a spotlight on human potential, and the hope that there is always, always good in this world. It calls on you to embrace empathy and discard apathy. To show vulnerability and to take a chance into the unknown, the strange. I admit, there was a point where I thought to myself, “Is this a little too heavy-handed?” Then I realized, no. I don’t think there’s ever a heavy-handed way of saying that life matters–that you matter. There are scenes near the end that moved me to my core, and you can bet this is one of those books I’ll be returning to time and time again.

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Alexia Cambaling June 18, 2018 - 12:43 pm

I don’t read a lot of YA Contemporary anymore but this looks great! I might pick this one up if I see it somewhere.

Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky June 20, 2018 - 12:48 am

Yeah, I don’t really reach for many YA contemporaries these days, but this one’s just strange enough to satisfy my fantasy-loving brain. And I hope you manage to find it!

thebookwormdrinketh June 18, 2018 - 1:15 pm

I’m so excited to read this one!! 💖💖

Tammy June 18, 2018 - 1:29 pm

So nice to come across a hopeful book for a change! There is a lot of doom and gloom being published these days.

Vera June 18, 2018 - 1:42 pm

Oh this sounds extremely good.

“It calls on you to embrace empathy and discard apathy. To show vulnerability and to take a chance into the unknown, the strange.” – I think empathy brings us closer, sympathy wants us to hide and apathy… well apathy makes us not bother… so nicely put together. Love those two sentences of yours very much. 💖

I’m so happy you enjoyed this book and hoping to read it sometime soon as well. Great review! 🙂

Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky June 20, 2018 - 12:21 am

Thanks, Vera! It hasn’t really been a great month mental-health wise and the sentiments in this book really helped! And I think you’ll absolutely love it. It’s one of those books that you just want to cuddle in bed. <3

Vera June 20, 2018 - 5:24 am

Oh big hugs. Hope you will fell better. ❤️ I’m so glad this book helped. It’s so brilliant how powerful books can be. 📚 I can relate to that, I love cuddling with a book in bed when not feeling great. 💕

Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) June 18, 2018 - 2:33 pm

Yay! I’m glad you liked it!
I haven’t seen many reviews for this book, so I was getting worried I was the only one who enjoyed it hahaha.

“Then I realized, no. I don’t think there’s ever a heavy-handed way of saying that life matters–that you matter. ”
Love that you said this and honestly don’t think there is a better way to sum up or talk about this book.

Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky June 20, 2018 - 12:11 am

Thank you introducing me to this book!! I think I really needed it. <3 <3 And yeah, it's pretty insane how more people aren't talking about it.

waytoofantasy June 18, 2018 - 4:27 pm

This sounds amazing!

Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky June 20, 2018 - 12:25 am

It 100% is! I needed something uplifting and this totally hit the mark.

jennifertarheelreader June 18, 2018 - 6:17 pm

Wow, Kathy, this sounds fantastic! I am adding it! Wonderful review!

Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky June 20, 2018 - 12:25 am

Yay! You won’t be disappointed. 🙂 It’s such a lovely, lovely story and I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about it.

Mid-Year Freak Out Tag June 18, 2018 - 8:11 pm

[…] Kathy // Becky // Alyssa // Mary // Nicole […]

June 2018 Wrap-Up – Pages Below the Vaulted Sky July 5, 2018 - 12:35 pm

[…] ➽ Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton: (9.0/10) A speculative-contemporary YA that came out of nowhere and blew me away. Heartwarming and hilarious, it’s a story about overcoming grief and finding your footing in a confusing, often-times hostile, world. I called it a “love letter to life and humanity” in my review and I can’t reiterate that enough. Review here. […]

sjhigbee July 5, 2018 - 8:34 pm

Thank you for a wonderful, uplifting review about a book that you clearly feel passionate about. I’m going to go and track it down – given I got given a book token or two for my birthday…

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Hopepunk Books of 2018 – Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 30, 2019 - 1:36 pm

[…] Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton […]


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