CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 21. . . .February 3, 2012
I'm Not Her.
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Fire, 2011.
285 pp., pbk., $9.99.
Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.
Review by Joan Marshall.
"You kids have a question?" Mr. Meekers asks from the front of the room.
Everyone else has cleared out of the class.
"No, sir." I start to walk and Clark falls in step beside me. He's taller than me and somehow walking beside him isn't so scary. It makes me almost…feminine. I imagine for a moment leaning up to kiss him and then I hope like heck he can't read my mind.
"Have a good day, Mr. Meekers," he calls behind us, oblivious to my lechery. "So, is your sister sick or something?" he asks as we leave the classroom.
My legs suddenly are harder to move. When I missed a full week of class in middle school, no one even blinked an eye. Kristina is gone for a few hours and I'm already on inquiry number three. On top of the invasion of my privacy, I know it's messing with time and energy I should be devoting to being in the Honor Society. This is the crucial first semester when the selection is made. If I don't make Honor Society my freshman year, Melissa's dream of our becoming chapter leaders and attending the national conference will fade. I feel sorry for myself and a flash of resentment erupts towards Kristina. It's quickly followed by a rush of shame. I'm worrying about losing my spot in a club for smart people. Kristina is fighting bone-eating cancer. She wins.
"It's no big deal." The words taste queasy as they leave my mouth. It is a big deal. A big freaking hairy deal.
Fifteen-year-old Tess has her life all organized. She's a talented artist, not to mention an aspiring member of her high school's Honor Society. She's the smart one. She and her best friend, Melissa, have spent their time mocking Tess' older sister Kristina and her popular, volleyball team friends. And then Kristina is diagnosed with bone cancer and faces down the amputation of her leg, wanting to keep her medical problems secret from all her friends. Suddenly, Tess is fielding questions about her sister's absence, fending off older boys who take an interest in her, and taking on a parental role when her mother and father neither can nor want to do so. As Tess lusts after older bad boy Nick and even Kristina's ex-boyfriend Devon, she draws closer and closer to her friend Clark, another Honor Society geek, and his friend Jeremy. Jeremy's mother is also in the hospital suffering from cancer, and he becomes Kristina's fast friend. Although Jeremy dies suddenly in a car accident, Kristina begins the long process of living with cancer. Tess rearranges her priorities, focussing on her sister instead of herself, clearer in her own mind what is ultimately important in life.
Tess is a strong, realistic mid-teen, quick witted and as self-absorbed as most girls of her age. She's both admiring of her family and very critical of their faults. Just old enough to begin to understand her parents' relationship, she loftily aims to be a more authentic, in-the-present person but discovers that it's more difficult than she thought. Somehow she's tongue-tied when it comes to boys, and she can't even seem to comfort her sister. As her carefully arranged world crumbles around her, Tess finds out what it is to deal with a life-threatening disease, to lose a friend and to cope with lust. She is honest and straightforward with her parents who immerse themselves in work and shopping to avoid dealing with the pain of their daughter's illness. Although Devon, the gorgeous boyfriend, and the volleyball girls are a bit clichéd, Nick's poverty, his abusive father and his determination to do something with his life make him a stand-out character. Jeremy, who always has the right words to calm Kristina and to help her family, is almost too good to be true. Kristina's tears, anger and mourning are completely in character for cancer patients, as is her re-evaluation of her life and her determination to honour Jeremy's friendship. The relationship between her and Tess, originally a typical, baiting and teasing one, evolves into a more mature, tender friendship.
The story takes place in an unidentified American community in a large suburban high school. The teens text and use cell phones to stay connected. Tess' family is wealthy and can afford to pay for the best medical care due to her mother's inherited money. Tess is driven to school or rides her bike while older students drive their own cars. The focus of Tess' mother's life is not a career of any sort, but grooming Kristina for a volleyball championship future, feeding her family healthy meals and running for exercise.
Stories about teenage illness can easily slip into maudlin tear-jerkers. This one rises above that level because it focuses on Tess' ambivalence and strengths. Readers will be unable to look away from the unflinching descriptions of the chemotherapy and the surgery that Kristina endures, but Tess's struggles to connect with boys will lighten the tension and keep readers interested. The dialogue is up-to-date and so true to both teen awkwardness and rapier wit. Told in the first person, I'm Not Her moves along smartly and will easily hold the attention of the intended reader.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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