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Review by Emily:
I have very mixed feelings about this novel and quite a few of them. I don’t actually remember a time when I had so many feelings and opinions about a novel, which is why this is the perfect first book to review on this blog: because I have an abundance of ideas revolving around this novel.
This whole book was a constant string of my inner monologue simply going, “Wait, what? Why would he/she do that?” on repeat for the duration of the book. I knew very little about this book going in, but I had heard great reviews and the book jacket summery sounded interesting, so I started listening to the audiobook. I have very mixed reviews about this book because I really liked the writing style and I liked a lot of the characters and it sparked a lot of thought and contemplation for me, which is in many ways the signs of a good book for me. At the same time, however, I had some issues with the book and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile my personal interest/enjoyment of the book and the issues that I had with it that made it an interesting read in the first place.
From the start, I really liked the narrative style and basically all of the characters. Here you have a girl who has spent her whole life inside of her house because of her illness and her mother who has lost basically everyone in her life and feels at constant risk of losing her daughter, but they cope by sticking together and finding the joy in the little things. The fact that the book’s main characters are not white, blond hair, blue eye skinny perfect people is also such a nice change.
So, because of these reasons, I found it a really earnest story and when Olly enters the picture. At first, I found it really sweet. While she was crushing on him, she also had found a friend despite not being able to leave her house. Her world opens up a little bit and I think that is really cool. I liked it even more when their friendship (and relationship) developed and he started visiting her, staying pretty far away from her to prevent her from getting sick.
Then, they threw caution to the wind and touching turns to kissing, which turns to Maddie running outside of the house for the first time in almost 18 years, literally risking her life. And, of course, her mom freaks out because Maddie is all she has left after her son and husband died and her whole life is dedicated to making sure that Maddie stays healthy.
And obviously the big deep question that this is supposed to bring up is whether living a life in a bubble is living a life at all. And to that, I give a resounding yes. While obviously it wasn’t an easy life, Maddie was content with her life before Olly and while that may have been naive, she was happy. And while Maddie may think that this boy is worth risking her life for, how could she possibly do that to her mother who has spent every second of every day of the previous 18 years trying to do everything she can to give Maddie a good life (or just a life period).
Then I hit basically the halfway point when Maddie writes a letter to her mom and she basically runs away. And I’m just here banging my head against my desk thinking about how horrible she is being to her mom. Her decision is not just about her and she is not the only one affected and that is the key. So, she gets outside and Olly is there and he reacts exactly as he should: What the hell are you doing? This is stupid. You need to get back inside. And then she’s like “nah, I want to live!” and he just goes with it.
I tried to put my feeling about this whole thing aside for a while since I was only halfway through the book and figured that if I wanted to enjoy the rest of it (and I did because I loved the narration and writing styles) and they were off to Hawaii. Now, I have to admit, I was in Maui just last week for my uncle’s wedding, so hearing the characters describe things like the airport and the rode to the hotel next to the ocean and the same hotel I stayed in that I was just in was really fun.
And then she gets sick. Of course. Because that’s what was going to happen if she left her environment. And the first things that she thinks is to continuously apologize to Olly for being sick and for “doing this to him” and I’m like why are you apologizing for dying…Literally, why are you apologizing for dying. And then her next coherent thought is that she wants her mom, which of course she does because her mom was the one who was looking out for her the whole time and trying to protect her and basically was her best friend. So she gets rushed to the hospital in the ambulance and her mother gets there and there is a lot of crying, but she survives and is taken home and she then is talking all about how she wishes that she was not alive. Now, I don’t blame this on the character. I can’t imagine how hard it would be in that situation and of course, it wouldn’t be a perfect life. I more blame the book as a whole for romanticizing something that really is not romantic at all: it is quite stupid and dangerous.
Now, I realize that the whole point of this book is that a life hidden away in a house is not a life lived at all, but I honestly feel like this whole book is trying to make this horrible horrible event seem really romantic, when in reality, it is just really tragic. Not just for Maddie, but for her mother and for her nurse and for Olly too. Additionally, she talks about how she can’t go back to her bubble after living a normal life, but going cliff diving in Hawaii and eating anything you want at a fancy resort with your boyfriend is not “normal life”. That is a bubble of it’s own and even if she was sick, her life would not be like that everyday. Yes, it would be different and yes, she would be able to different things if she was not sick. However, her life is not horrible before this book starts. She has a family and friends who love her, she enjoys getting to learn new things and has a passion for her schoolwork and reading. Yes, she is very sick and she can’t do the things that a lot of people can, but she also has a lot of things that many people would kill for.
AND THEN: The plot twist that just made me angry. Because it was going to lead to the fairytale ending that this story obviously should not have. This book should not end happily ever after. That is the nature of this story. Yet, the author decides that it is a good idea to actually say, SURPRISE this whole time she wasn’t sick to start with and all her dreams really CAN come true. THEN, it comes out that her mom has been making up this sickness the whole time in order to desperately try to protect her from getting killed like her husband and son were.
Alright, so I think that the plot twist actually would have been really good and it did make it more interesting. However, I felt like it was underdeveloped and not introduced until too late into the novel. Yes, it did surprise me, which I guess is the point of a plot twist, but I also didn’t completely buy it because it seemed thrown into the end of the novel to me. I congratulate the author on trying to shake up a genre that can often fall into the same old song and dance, but I just didn’t feel like it was completely genuine or a good fit within the rest of the novel. The whole book had one focus (and it was not a small one— looking the the idea of what it means to live) and then suddenly in the last quarter of the book, the whole thing does a 180 degree turn. I think that it was really ambitious to try to squeeze this whole new topic into the end of the book. The idea of the depth of grief that causes her mother to create this illness is yearning to be explored deeper, but the surface is only barely scratched. Additionally, while learning that she is not sick, Maddie poses the question to herself, “Who will I be if not sick?” This is another huge issue of identity that I feel like is begging to be explored more, but it is simply said and then passed over.
Basically, to sum it up, I feel like the ending was rushed and thrown in after a whole novel focusing on something completely different and I would have loved to have a more in-depth part of the novel exploring some of the topics breached near the end of the book. Now, obviously, because she was never sick to begin with and her mom turned out not to be the altruistic saint that she appeared to be at the start, it may seem like my earlier comments about the stupidity and selfishness of the main characters can be disregarded, but I disagree. While she was not actually sick, she thought that she was and she went forward as if she was and the author continued to romanticize the “love overcomes death and sickness” motif, which really bothers me.