These three books by Gabrielle Zevin, All These Things I’ve Done, Because It Is My Blood, and In The Age of Love and Chocolate, are short, and could easily have been one book. They are set mostly in New York City beginning in 2083, but only so that a few facts could be changed. One, which is also the major leitmotif, involves chocolate: at this future time, alcohol is legal and chocolate is not, except with a doctor’s prescription for its health benefits. To define this as constituting a dystopia is, in my opinion, a serious stretch. But it is a very good series nonetheless. I believe the story was divided in three and marketed as a YA dystopia because it came on the heels of the remarkable success of The Hunger Games, but I think it deserves a broader audience.
Anya (“Annie”) Pavlova Balanchine comes from a family of illegal chocolate dealers, and she, her older brother Leo, and her younger sister Natty are orphaned. The love holding these three together is actually the most defining element of these books. The different kinds of love and trust Anya learns to feel for the other people in her life is a second strong theme.
As the story starts, Annie is 16, but by the end of the series she is 21. When we meet Annie, in spite of being a family defined (in many ways) by chocolate, she has never liked its’ taste, always fixating on the bitter tones. By the end, Annie learns to pick out the sweetness, the true lesson of this saga.
In between, we learn a lot about Annie’s trials and tribulations (and they are real, and damaging, unlike the usual YA dystopia in which the heroine survives physically unscathed), and “all these things [she has] done.” We also encounter, along with Annie, different types of love, each of which is important to her happiness. Annie’s heart has been hardened; too many people she loved have died, some of them even because of her. As Win, the boy who loves her, observes: “…people who know you have a disturbing tendency to end up with bullets in them.” In fact, one of the most touching passages in the books is when Win (who got shot in the leg because of Annie) tries to explain to her what love really means:
“You used to say I didn’t know what love was. But I think I learned what it is. I learned it when I thought I had lost you over the summer. And I learned it when my leg ached something awful. And I learned it when you were gone and I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. And I learned it every night when I’d pray that you were safe even if I never got to see you again.”
Natty tells her sister that she is like the element Argon:
“‘Argon is totally inert. Nothing affects it, and it has a hard time forming chemical compounds, i.e., having relationships. It’s a loner. It doesn’t ask for anything from anybody. It reminds me of you.’
‘Natty, that isn’t true. Things affect me. I’m upset right now.’
‘Are you? It’s hard to tell, Argon,’ Natty said.”
Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the whole story is the one between Annie and Win’s father, whom Annie refuses to address as anything but Mr. Delacroix as part of her effort to keep the two of them distant. The complex and touching growth of their relationship is really the heart [double entendre] of this story. The two of them start out as adversaries, and end up more like father and daughter in an affecting, poignant evolution.
The story is not without a good deal of humor. My favorite quote comes from the first book, in which Natty asks Annie why she helped a poor kid who tried to rob Natty:
“‘Because he was less fortunate than us, Natty. And Daddy always said that we have to be mindful of those who are less fortunate.’
‘But Daddy killed people, didn’t he?’
‘Yes, I admitted. ‘Daddy was complex.'”
Evaluation: This series turned out to be much more than “yet another YA dystopia.” It’s a serious and heart-melting look at different forms of love, from the love between best friends, to the love between family members, to different possible relationships between two consenting adults. As a bonus, you learn a great deal about the harvesting and nurturing of chocolate.
Published in three parts by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers in 2011, 2012, and 2013.