The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak is not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination; there is a lot of suspension of disbelief necessary to get the most out of these pages, and the characters aren’t always… Just give me a second to decide between likable and intolerable as the proper adjective.
To kick things off, at least, they’re certainly borderline intolerable. What we’re presented with are two teen archetypes, straight from a John Hughes movie, but with that wise, clever and funny beyond their years slant that seemingly every teenager in every film post-Juno possesses. Intolerable. But they do grow on you, and are quite likable further down the road. Further down the road, unfortunately, they also become less and less understandable making decisions that, frankly, defy all degrees of logic, in the name of, I don’t know, hi-jinx? Madcap fun? Adventures in Babysitting-style craziness?
The novel is told in an alternating dual first person perspective, meaning one chapter is from Zak’s point-of-view, and the next is from Ana’s. Zak and Ana go to the same high school, but have nothing in common, and only really know each other to see each other. Ana is a grades-minded over-achiever, while Zak is a too-smart-for-his-own-good gaming-obsessed slacker; as Ana prepares for an academic competition, Zak gets himself into trouble, and must pay penance by joining the team. (Very little of this plot point makes much sense.) In doing so, Zak is forced to miss out on Washingcon, his favorite sci-fi fan convention, which he hasn’t missed in years; for an outcast like Zak, it’s the place where he fits in, and for a few days at least, has the opportunity to rise to a place of stratospheric popularity. Of course, while on the trip for the competition, Ana’s sheltered little brother –also on the team– slips away and takes to the Con, inspired by Zak’s tales of Cons passed. Zak and Ana go after him, and spend the night trying to track him down, making enemies and taking on criminals.
You will think to yourself “Why don’t they just __________?” and “Why would they __________?” quite a lot. You will wonder why time seems to fly by so quickly at some points and move so slowly at others. The geography of the convention hall doesn’t quite make sense, and coincidence is basically a character in the book. The book is problematic, absolutely, and early on I had to make the decision to read on; it was touch and go for a while.
My patience paid off, as the book settles into a kind bizarre, uncomfortable absurdity once the action shifts from the mundane, to the singular world of the sci-fi convention; you will think many a “Why?” and “What the?” and “How?” and occasionally you may even cringe, but you will never be bored, and you will always find something to find interesting.
Against my better judgment and every instinct in my body, I found The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak infectious; after many, many pages of “Should I keep reading this?” my attitude switched to “I’ll put it down after a few more pages… Maybe just one more chapter… I’ll just read Ana’s take on that and then I’ll put it down.” It’s not a great book, no; it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s considerably more fun and weird than so many of the self-serious alternatives, and the romance of it is more palatable than novels that specialize in that sort of thing. (Side note, the romances in teen romances are often sketchy as all get out.)
When I closed the cover on Ana and Zak, I did so not really wanting to leave these characters behind, which, I have to admit, I would have bet against at the start. It won me over despite myself.
PET PEEVE ALERT! I love book design. Love it. I routinely judge books by their covers. I requested The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak in part because I liked the 8-bit style characters on the cover. But here’s the issue: On page 14, Ana is described as “Scrawny, flat-chested, with a mane of frizzy, dark hair.” On the cover, however, she’s pictured not only as having decidedly un-frizzy, hair, but it’s blond instead of dark, and she’s not scrawny and flat-chested, but has a thin waist and what appears to be an un-flat bosom. I get that these are fictional characters, but it’s kind of disturbing that, even in 8-bit, Ana has been, for lack of a better term, sexed up; in the book, she’s clearly been written to play against the type of the traditional romantic female lead, so why make her just that on the cover, albeit pixelated?
Kinderlit.ca requested and received a copy of The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak in exchange for an honest review. Read about our review policy HERE.