September Book Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Everything, Everything follows the story of a young girl named Maddie who, due to complex health issues, is unable to go outside. This means her visitors are few and far between and she is entirely confined to her house. She’s seen the comings and goings of neighbours in the house next door – they move in, they move out – but when Ollie and his family move in, something is noticeably different. As first love blossoms between them, the formerly rigid walls of Maddie’s existence start to blur and she finds herself contemplating things she never imagined. A whirlwind of events sends Maddie’s world spiralling through tumultuous changes that might just change her life forever.

This book is something else. It’s one of those novels that you just know is going to leave a lasting impression. It’s a masterpiece which effortlessly combines witty humour with intriguing characters and ground-breaking plot twists to leave the reader reeling. In short, it’s the perfect read.

It speaks volumes that the first details we are given are Maddie’s medical notes. Her identity revolves around her condition and it’s the first thing we learn about her as a character. It’s shaped who she has become but I love that, as the novel progresses, she doesn’t allow her condition to define her. It takes a struggle, but a big part of the narrative is Maddie’s search to discover who she is without her illness, and that makes for a very compelling read.

Mothering is an important theme in the novel, explored through two very different female characters. Maddie’s mother (who is also Maddie’s doctor) is often cold and clinical without meaning to be, and it becomes clear why as the narrative unfolds. Then there’s Carla, the warm, caring maternal figure to whom Maddie confesses her real feelings. Maddie confesses that she feels more comfortable talking to Carla because she doesn’t want to make her mother sad. As Carla’s backstory is revealed, we discover that she fled Mexico and left her family, believing she wouldn’t survive. Having experienced such difficulties, she’s able to better understand Maddie’s need to really live instead of simply leading a safe existence that isn’t really living at all. I found these two characters really interesting. On the one hand, I pitied Maddie’s mother, particularly when the big plot twist hits at the end of the book (I won’t spoil…), but I also felt a strong sense of betrayal for Maddie. Given her predicament and the emotional strain put on her after losing her husband and son, her actions are understandable, but still incredibly damaging.

I thoroughly enjoyed following the progression of Ollie and Maddie’s relationship throughout the book, anticipating their next encounter with the turn of every page. In particular, I found Yoon’s description of their bodies intriguing. Ollie is constantly in motion while Maddie is Zen and still, thinking and observing a world that doesn’t include her. With a simple sentence, she captures this beautifully: ‘His body is his escape from the world, whereas I’m trapped in mine’. Two opposite entities, almost at odds yet inescapably drawn to the other. Ollie, who has experienced physical and emotional abuse from his father is restless and, perhaps on a physical level, always ready to dodge some advance. Maddie, contained in her home, unable to physically leave, has retreated into her body, has become a very thoughtful character, with no use for constant movement because it doesn’t get her anywhere. There are some truly beautiful ideas in the book, like the chapter on skin. Yoon explores the idea that some cells renew while some don’t; we change the upper layers of our skin every two weeks while some don’t renew at all and that’s what ages us. ‘We can have immortality or the memory of touch. But we can’t have both.’ This is why I love literature. So many ideas that are so beautiful and complex and unimaginable; some are too big to wrap your mind around and plenty remind you how wonderful the world is. Yoon ties that in to her narrative, giving the novel an existential tone which is thought-provoking and entertaining in the same breath.

Among the banter and witticism that allows Yoon to maintain a light-hearted tone throughout, there are definitive moments in the book which carry a significantly darker undertone. The unfolding abuse inflicted by Ollie’s father next door is certainly one of them. I also thought Zach (Olly’s friend) was a key addition to the narrative, a kind of wake-up call – a reality check – a way of grounding the story in relevant contemporary issues. Zach is gay and wants to be a Rockstar – two things his parents absolutely loathe – so he pretends to be someone he’s not while his parents remain ignorant (or choose to ignore) how damaging this is to their son. This isn’t just a story about a sick girl falling in love with a boy. This is a story about the dark side to life; the ugly, the marginalised, the unspoken. Zach pinpoints the issue perfectly: ‘Maybe growing up means disappointing the people we love’. The adults in this book undoubtedly fail their children, regardless of intention. Maddie’s mother causes a lot of emotional damage for her daughter, Ollie’s dad is physically abusive to his family, and Zach’s parents force him to create a version of himself that is socially acceptable. This speaks to the emotional damage often inflicted on millennials and young people by a society that is often set in its ways and unwilling to welcome change.

The short chapters make the novel very easy to get through and also give it a scrapbook-feel thanks to the little drawings and document inserts. The episodic nature of the book makes it feel like you’re paging through a collage of Maddie’s life, filled with her whims, her musings, her observations as you flicked through snippets taken directly from her diary. I found some of them as erratic as the thoughts that flit through the human mind, and that was such an interesting way to consume a piece of literature.

To conclude, Everything, Everything is the first book I have EVER completed in a single day. If that doesn’t convince you to read it, I don’t know what will.

 

October Book Review: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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