Synopsis: Maddy is allergic to the world; stepping outside the sterile sanctuary of her home could kill her. But then Olly moves in next door. And just like that, Maddy realises there’s more to life than just being alive. You only get one chance at first love. And Maddy is ready to risk everything, everything to see where it leads.
Author: Nicola Yoon
This review contains major spoilers about the book.
I was excited to read this book as I had seen it all over Instagram, with many giving it a positive review, and so when I managed to find a copy in Asda for less than a fiver, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. My excitement soon turned to disappointment with every turn of a page.
The format is simple and easy to read as it contains headings rather than chapters and cute little drawings, which made this a good choice to read straight after the lengthy Ready Player One. In fact, this was such an easy read that I managed to finish it within a couple of hours. Unfortunately, that’s where my praise for this book ends.
I’m gonna get right into why I think this book deserved its two out of five rating.
This book is set in a first person format with our narrator being eighteen-year-old Maddy Whittier. Maddy has SCID, also known as severe combined immunodeficiency, which has caused her to become, for lack of a better term, allergic to the outside world. She lives with her mother, a doctor, in a hermetically-sealed house to prevent her from becoming life-threateningly sick. Aside from her mother, the only other person Maddy has regular contact with is her nurse, Carla, who provides care and companionship to a rather lonely Maddy. You find early on that Maddy’s dad and older brother were killed in an accident when she was a baby. Due to all of the trauma and heartbreak, you can understand why Maddy’s mother, Pauline, is protective over her daughter; she doesn’t want to lose Maddy like she lost her husband and son.
Except that’s not the truth.
At the end of the book, you find out Maddy was never sick. Instead, it was her mother who was sick and living with a mental illness that had been triggered by Maddy being hospitalised shortly after the accident that killed Maddy’s dad and brother. All of those factors combined had caused her mother, Pauline, to have a breakdown, which I think is pretty understandable. Grief can change us in ways we could never imagine. This is a woman who has suffered a tremendous amount of trauma and heartbreak. It wasn’t done maliciously, but rather out of love and fear. Pauline was terrified to lose her daughter the way she had lost her husband and son. I truly felt for the woman.
The reason I disliked this book is because this book had the potential to be different, to be diverse, and to be a positive representation for those who do live with an illness similar to Maddy’s. It’s not a fictional illness; there are real people among the seven billion of us on this planet who do live with an illness like SCID. I felt as though having it be revealed that Maddy was never really sick was a way of getting a quick solution for the desired ending. But what about those who do live with that type of illness who won’t get their happy ever after like Maddy? It feels like it’s a brutal reminder that their illnesses have not yet got a cure. There is no convenient ending for them; it’s something they have to live their entire lives with.
Now that’s out of the way, I can tell you what I did like about the book.
Normally I’m not a romance person. If I know romance is the core genre of the book then that’s usually a turn off for me. However, the romance in this book was enjoyable. Olly Bright and his family move into the house next door to Maddy. Usually I don’t like love-at-first-sight romances – I don’t believe it’s possible. Lust, infatuation, but certainly not love. Maybe that’s me being cynical. I just think you need to know someone before you fall in love with them, otherwise you’re just in love with the idea of love, not the person themselves. Anyway, Maddy gets infatuated with Olly quickly. This I didn’t mind – it makes sense given that Maddy has been secluded from everyone for her entire life. Suddenly there’s a kid her own age around; of course she’s going to be curious. A few minor things happen in terms of plot at the beginning but things really start to kick off when Olly writes his email address on his bedroom window for Maddy. They start regularly IM’ing each other. They IM pretty much every single night and into the early hours of every morning. Then this escalates into Maddy begging her nurse, Carla, to allow Olly into the house when her mother is at work – and she does. They make a promise that they won’t touch, just in case, and remain on opposite sides of the room. This carries on for a while, until, one day, Pauline makes the discovery that Olly has been in the house once she sees his wristband besides Maddy’s bed. As you have probably predicted, she bans Maddy from ever seeing Olly again and, very dramatically, terminates Carla’s contract. Well, you know the saying: absence makes the heart grow fonder. This could not be more true for Maddy and Olly. When you’re that age, especially, and someone tells you that you can’t do something or see someone, you’re going to rebel and you’re going to do the one thing they’ve told you that you can’t. So Maddy sneaks off and goes to Hawaii for a couple of days with Olly, leaving just a note for her mother to explain.
This is one thing I think Nicole Yoon did exceptionally well.
Yes, at that moment Maddy was still under the impression she was sick and took an incredibly huge risk, but… isn’t that what life is all about? What kind of life are you living if you don’t take risks? Can you truly say you are living? Maddy wants to live, not just exist. The thrill of getting to do something you’ve been repeatedly told not to do and, for one of the very few times in her life, getting to go outside – and to another state entirely – is Maddy living her life despite the risks involved (or so she thought). The question is: is being safe and living in your own bubble, potentially being unhappy, better than taking a risk and daring to do the things people have said you can’t and, as a result, feeling genuine happiness? Is short lived happiness better than no happiness at all?
That is what the true story of the book is about, but I feel as though was lost by the reveal of Maddy not being sick in the first place. This book had the potential to be amazing. It had a story that so many people could connect with, not just those with terminal illnesses like the one Maddy is led to believe she has. I felt disappointed by the cheap ending that I had no choice but to rate this two out of five instead of the four I originally wanted to award it. I’ve read recently that Yoon used the birth of her own daughter as inspiration for the story as, like any parent, she wanted to protect her daughter from all the dangers this world presents. I can see where she was coming from, but, terminal and mental illnesses are particularly sensitive subjects that very rarely get portrayed accurately. In a way, this seemed to villainise mental illness, a subject close to my heart.
Yoon has amazing potential – her books are easy to read in a unique format that is enjoyable, and she has a writing style that is light and easy to follow. I’m not going to say I won’t read her second novel, The Sun Is Also A Star, but I’m not in any rush to read it and have pushed it to the back of my TBR pile… for now.
As a debut novel, I wouldn’t say it was terrible – it’s not. Nothing is ever perfect on our first try and this novel is definitely not the exception to that. There were parts of the story that I did love, but, overall, this story wasn’t for me. However, I would recommend you pick it up, perhaps from your local library (let’s take advantage of a resource that’s available to us while we can), as it is a story that you can easily get through within a couple of hours, so if you ever have a few hours to kill or want an easy read for a day at the beach, then this is perfect for that.