Olivie Blake’s Alone With You in the Ether (Tor Books, 2022) is a messy, vulnerable story about two unusual people meeting, falling in love, and figuring out how their love can survive contact with the world—and their own troubled pasts.
Regan is an artist volunteering as a docent at the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives in a swank apartment with her sexy, wealthy, and patronizing boyfriend, Marc. They go to parties, snort cocaine in restrooms, get home late, have tired, intoxicated sex, and sleep to midday—when Regan rolls out of bed and heads off to her museum shift.
On the surface, Regan’s brand of cynical libertine is rather uninteresting. She is a judgmental nepo-baby with no ambition in life other than to flit around as the trophy wife of a wealthy man while imagining the both of them will carry on extra-marital affairs in middle age.
While many things made Regan #blessed,
THE NARRATOR, DISAPPROVINGLY: She is being sarcastic.
primary among them was her hair, which was characteristically perfect, and her skin, which was generally resistant to the consequences of her lifestyle. Genetically speaking, she was built for waking up late and rushing out the door ... Luckily her mother had given her the East Asian genes for eternal youth and her father had given her a trust fund that made people think twice about rejecting her, so it didn’t really matter whether she slept or not. (p. 12)
Of course, it’s more complicated than all this. Regan has bipolar disorder, a narcissistic mother, a chronically perfect older sister, and a criminal history. Shortly after graduating college, Regan talked her then-boyfriend into counterfeiting foreign currency with her, because he—an artist without a wealthy father—needed money. When they were inevitably caught, Regan’s family money bought her leniency in the form of court-ordered therapy (her boyfriend’s fate goes unremarked). Regan hasn’t made art since.
Elsewhere, Aldo is a PhD student in theoretical mathematics with an undefined “weirdness” that could be read as undiagnosed autism. He runs his life by routine. He attends classes, teaches, goes to a number of favorite thinking spots, works out, and smokes pot to self-medicate. He has no social life or friends to speak of and his apartment is spare and efficient—containing only and exactly what he needs and nothing more.
Aldo was not an especially good communicator, either. That was what the drugs had been for to begin with; he was an anxious kid, then a depressed teen, and then, for a brief period, a full-blown addict. He had learned over time to keep his thoughts to himself, which was most easily accomplished if his brain activity was split into categories. His mind was like a computer with multiple applications open, some of them buzzing with contemplation in the background. Most of the time Aldo did not give others the impression he was listening, a suspicion that was generally correct. (p. 16)
Raised by an affectionate single father, Masso, who owns an Italian restaurant in LA, Aldo’s “dark past” includes an overdose that landed him in hospital with a heartbroken Masso at his side. Aldo quit whatever drug almost ended his life and devoted himself to an unsolvable math problem.
Aldo meets Regan when she happens upon him seated in the armory of the Art Institute drawing hexagons in his notebook as he meditates on time travel. After a quick exchange that has both revealing more to each other than one typically does when meeting a stranger (his mother leaving when he was an infant; her counterfeit arrest) they go their separate ways.
Blake is the author of the best-selling fantasy Atlas Series, which she self-published along with three other novels, including Ether. After the series went viral on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram, Tor picked up the series, Ether, and the novel One for My Enemy for republication. With Blake’s remarkable success in the fantasy realm, some readers may be surprised to find no speculative elements in Ether. Even so, it’s not hard to see speculative influences in Aldo’s time travel conundrum and the fast and punchy voice that drives the narrative forward.
When they run into each other again, Aldo asks Regan to lie to him so he can get a measure of what she looks like when she lies (having puzzled over her in the interim), and Regan asks him if he wants to go somewhere to talk (having found out very little about him in her online searching). During their conversation, Aldo asks her for five more conversations and she agrees: six conversations to get to know her and then they’ll part ways.
Over the course of the conversations they fall in love, walking up to the line of Regan cheating on Marc with a sexy haircut and a sensual church service (you read that right), but not fully crossing into infidelity or openly acknowledging their clear attraction.
Though Regan makes much of Aldo’s undoubtedly significant smarts, repeating that he’s the genius of the two at the novel’s opening, again at the end, and several times throughout, her thinking is lightning quick and just as sharply illuminating. Much of their conversations consist of Aldo speaking in half sentences while Regan darts around connecting dots. In their fourth conversation, when she calls him at four in the morning while sitting in her bathtub to avoid waking Marc, she asks Aldo why he’s studying time travel when he doesn’t expect to figure it out.
“But you’re willingly losing sleep over it,” she noted.
“I...” It was difficult to explain. “Yes, because—”
“Because if you don’t have something to figure out, then you have no reason to keep going?”
Or maybe it wasn’t that difficult to explain.
“Yeah,” he said. “Basically.”
She was quiet for a few beats of time.
“So this is how you did it,” she said.
“Kept going. After...you know. What happened to you.”
“Ah.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss it; other people tended to treat the resurrection of his mental stability as some sort of dramatic event, but for him, it was simply historical. “I guess.”
“No, it totally is. You gave yourself an impossible problem so you’d never be able to stop thinking about it. It’s brilliant, actually.” She sounded close to impressed. “Other people probably think it’s crazy, don’t they?” (p. 68-9)
Within moments of assessing a person or situation, Regan comes to quick, usually harsh, conclusions about the motives and capacities of others. Which is, in part, what makes her conversations with Aldo so compelling for the reader. Regan, bored by her life and the people in it, can’t help but be fascinated by Aldo and his fascination with her.
When she brings him home for her parents’ anniversary party, Regan visits Aldo’s room at night and offers him something of herself, expecting him to choose sex. Instead, he says he wants to see her art. Rebuffed, confused, and ashamed, Regan tiptoes through the house in the middle of the night, making her way to her father’s office where an expensive yet bland painting hangs admired only for its dollar value and otherwise forgotten. Regan forms a plan.
She steals the painting, swapping it out for a forgery of her making, sells it and uses the proceeds to move out of Marc’s apartment and rent her own—and a studio, as well. She and Aldo start dating. She stops taking her medication and starts painting.
That last point is a character arc that Blake knows will not land well with some readers. She opens the novel’s acknowledgements by stating that Regan’s story is not meant to be prescriptive about mood disorders and medication. Blake goes on to share the story of her own bipolar disorder diagnosis and her journey to writing as a more effective mood stabilizer for her than medication—which is Regan’s journey with art as well. Regan obsessively paints and in doing so finds a way to be in the world on her own terms.
While that aspect of the novel didn’t bother me, I frequently found myself frustrated that Regan’s class privilege was never really addressed. She doesn’t have to earn a living, and the moment she does need money she simply filches her father’s painting? Her worldview and experiences are so incredibly limited and full of disdain for other people that it was hard to root for her even though her main challenges are deeply human and relatable.
As Ether is a love story, it’s not entirely possible to spoil the predictable ending: Regan and Aldo get their happily ever after. However, if you’re reaching for this book for the love of romance, I’m not sure you’re going to be satisfied. From the very start, the language and tone felt deliberately constructed to make the reader anxious about the impending implosion of these two lovers. Consider the first three lines of the novel:
THERE WOULD BE TIMES, particularly at first, when Regan would attempt to identify the moment things had set themselves on a path to inevitable collision. Moments had become intensely important to Regan, more so than they had ever been. Considering it was Aldo who had altered the shapes and paths of her thinking, it was probably his fault that she now considered everything in terms of time. (p. 5)
What would otherwise be a meet cute is an “inevitable collision,” and the personal growth that happens as a result of loving Aldo becomes him “altering” her thinking: it’s his “fault” that she sees things differently. The same language and tone pervade most of the passages in which the narrator is in Regan’s head.
I confess this made the story less enjoyable for me, as I had to consistently remind myself that the marketing suggested this was a romance and not another painful portrayal of two atypical people hurting each other until something forces a separation. I felt dread far more often than I felt any of the positive emotions I associate with love stories.
Perhaps Regan’s repeated predictions that she will either screw things up with Aldo by getting bored and sleeping around on him, or that he will wake up one day and see the real, unlovable her, are accurate to her character and the particular portrayal of someone struggling with bipolar disorder that Blake had in mind. But accuracy and emotional resonance in fiction are not the same. The narrative lacks the joy of a love story because even their affection for each other feels more like obsession than romance. With so much of the novel spent insisting that these two won’t work, by the time it arrives at the black moment—when all hope is supposed to be lost—their falling out and reconciliation are rather anticlimactic.
The main strength of Ether is Blake’s clear skill with character interiority. There are some absolutely brutal inner monologues, mostly from Regan, that feel painfully authentic. The story themes, too, are a strength and a good reason to pick this one up. Ultimately the novel is about the unique way Regan and Aldo fall in love; how the people closest to them, even while trying to help, make them feel fundamentally broken and unlovable; and how they find their way to believing themselves capable and deserving of love.