In the age of miracle book advances, this author almost lives up to her hype

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and with good reason: Random House paid $1 million for the privilege of publishing this first novel, a figure that does not include foreign rights or a movie deal. Pretty miraculous, considering literary fiction isn’t exactly flying off bookstore shelves.

In situations like these (big money, big hype), the question is always the same: Is The Age of Miracles ($26) worth a million bucks? Walker’s premise is certainly a powerful one: For unexplained reasons, the Earth’s rotation begins slowing, adding hours to each day, disrupting both gravity and ocean currents, and panicking the world’s population. Birds fall out of the sky; whales and dolphins wash up on beaches; crops fail. Over time, two groups emerge: “clock-timers,” who follow the government’s recommendation of keeping regular hours, and “real-timers,” who continue taking their cues from the sun.

The narrator of The Age of Miracles is Julia, an only child in the sixth grade. Her father is a doctor, who tries to remain calm and sensible; her mother, a former model who now teaches high school drama and history, starts hoarding batteries and jars of peanut butter. Julia’s best friend Hanna moves to Utah, where a number of Mormons congregate. Most importantly, Julia has a crush on Seth Moreno, whose mother is dying of terminal cancer. Both Julia and Seth take piano lessons from Sylvia, who lives in their neighborhood and complicates their lives in unforeseeable ways.

Walker is smart, and her writing is impressive. But choosing a 12-year-old protagonist means The Age of Miracles frequently reads like a Judy Blume novel crossed with hard science fiction. Walker pays homage to the late Ray Bradbury, who had a knack for infusing his fiction with complex human emotions. His 1954 short story, “All Summer in a Day,” gets prominent mention; the action takes place on Venus, where it rains steadily and the sun emerges very briefly every seven years.

The Age of Miracles covers first loves and first bras, bittersweet breakups, infidelity and death. It captures the moment children realize their parents aren’t perfect, and that adults don’t know everything. Walker gives the story real weight with details about “gravity sickness” (which affects Julia’s mother) and complications from the deterioration of the earth’s magnetic field.

Random House clearly expects The Age of Miracles to appeal to readers of all ages. And while it is a magnificent story, telling it from the point of view of a young girl will surely alienate some adult readers. Much as I liked the book, I think it’s most likely to strike a chord with teenage girls. That said, I think Walker has a long career ahead of her with no signs of slowing down. ★★★☆☆