Julia Karr’s young-adult novel “XVI ” takes place in the futuristic land of Chicago where 16-year-old girls are obligated to get a XVI tattooed on their wrists. Set in Chicago, the main character, Nina, is from the “Cementville” neighborhood and hopes to break out of her low social tier to become a “creative.” Chicagoans will be interested to hear that, in 2051, the 33 bus still operates and the Art Institute continues to thrive, though they perhaps won’t be shocked by the unlikely fact that young women sketching in the galleries are offered jobs by wandering curators.
In this world, obsession with youth culture is carried to the extreme, like a Katy Perry song gone terribly, terribly wrong. On her sixteenth birthday, each girl is given a tattoo, her GPS tracker is removed and she’s given a full round of STD vaccinations. The tattoo signals that the young woman has reached her sexual maturity and is encouraged to fornicate with abandon. Schools promote wearing revealing clothing and flirty behavior. Naturally the seedy underbelly of this society, which hardly needs exposition, is that women have no control over their sexual or reproductive lives. Nina, having seen alarming videos owned by her mother’s abusive boyfriend, is not interested in this “sex-teen” lifestyle. She has the added responsibility of watching over her vacuous friend who eagerly awaits her own birthday, and her little sister, who is beginning to display the wanton behavior embraced by the culture. Complicating matters is that Nina’s first boyfriend makes her feel like she might like to do more than just kiss. Karr writes, “Whispering my name, he traced his tongue along the edge of my ear. I slung my leg over his, straddling him; his hands grabbed my butt, pulling me close.” Moments later, the young man in question says, “We’d better stop. Before we do something neither of us is ready for.”
In Karr’s consumer-based, hyper-sexualized, privacy-lacking universe, Nina discovers a secret behind a program heavily promoted to girls her age (virgins only). Navigating a world with conflicting messaging will most likely be an appealing one to young readers, but this book might be less compelling for older readers.
In a period where the serial YA novel prevails, it’s a bit surprising that “XVI ” stands alone, with seemingly no “XVII “on its heels. But one does get the impression that something really sinister happens when kids turn eighteen. (Kelly Roark)
By Julia Karr
Speak (Penguin), 325 pages, $8.99