Publication Date: September 2, 2014
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Reading Level: Young Adult, 14+
Reading Level: Young Adult, 14+
Pages: 304 (ARC)
Source: Gifted from Montana
The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park in this tough and tender young adult novel that's a lot about love (and a little about cancer).
Winner of the 2012 Australian Text Prize
"When I was little I believed in Jesus and Santa, spontaneous combustion, and the Loch Ness monster. Now I believe in science, statistics, and antibiotics." So says seventeen-year-old Zac Meier during a long, grueling leukemia treatment in Perth, Australia. A loud blast of Lady Gaga alerts him to the presence of Mia, the angry, not-at-all-stoic cancer patient in the room next door. Once released, the two near-strangers can't forget each other, even as they desperately try to resume normal lives. The story of their mysterious connection drives this unflinchingly tough, tender novel told in two voices.
Before I begin, I want to note something. It's become apparent to me that many readers consider this book to be a The Fault In Our Stars rip-off. It is not. The only comparison between the two of the books is that both of the female and male leads have some kind of cancer. Betts's story is one of friendship and loving onself and not romance, and it's told in an entirely different way than John Green's beloved novel because of the author's experience as a teacher in cancer hospitals.
What I loved about this book is that it's about Zac and Mia. Yes, both characters have cancer and at its core it is a cancer story, but this is a story about two teens learning to be comfortable with themselves and also learning to love themselves. It's about two unlikely friends who meet in the most unconventional of ways and lead very strange lives. It focuses on them and the way they think, not their ailments. This is the story of Zac and the story of Mia, not the story of their designated cancers. And their cute little quirks make you almost immediately fall in love with them. However, this story takes the hard approach to showcasing their cancer. It is brutally honest with it's portrayal of recovery experiences and ailments, so I wouldn't recommend reading it if you have a loved one with cancer (I am very sorry if you do) or if the topic of cancer makes you uncomfortable.
Zac is one of those characters that is hard not to fall in love with. I loved him from the very beginning. His sense of humor is incredibly dry and that appeals to me in any character or real life friend. While he hasn't been dealt the best deck of cards, he takes what he's been given and runs with it. He doesn't appreciate special treatment and even when his cancer is winning, he puts others before himself. He's the type of person that lives life and he is very easy to love.
In contrast, there's Mia. She's stubborn and rebellious and doesn't always see much sense. This makes her incredibly frustrating. You pity her more than you support her for a good portion of the book. It is Mia alone, in my opinion, that makes this book so polarizing. While it's easy to love Zac and watch his character arc, it's not easy to warm up to Mia and her character arc is much more subtle and slow-going. I think that this was done purposefully to show how different people can approach such a life changing thing as cancer. While I enjoyed Mia because of her struggle, I know several readers did not. Just give her a chance. She's incredibly selfish and self-centered, but it's because she was raised by a young mother, thus making her very naive despite her preferred adult-like activities. She seems to be the thing that makes this book amazing or bad in certain reader's eyes, so if you don't give her a chance you may not have a positive reading experience. Because I warmed up to her so quickly, her character growth was all the more powerful to me and her and Zac will definitely stay in my mind for quite a while.
American readers will enjoy this book because of its very distinct Australian vibe. I like the Australianisms. They make me smile and giggle because of the difference in language. It doesn't feel like an American book and I think that's part of the allure for readers. While it takes us some place incredibly new in the form of a cancer ward, it also takes us throughout Australia. For readers who enjoy traveling and learning about other cultures, this book is definitely a good choice.
Lastly, there's the ending. This book ends with a spell of hope. I don't want to ruin it for you, but I know readers who both loved and disliked the ending because, yes, it is open. Though, despite its openness, it's rather closed, too. Our characters have ended one of many journeys in their lives and a new one is about to be open. So while this book is firmly and completely finished, Zac and Mia's story is not.
Very powerful and moving, this is a book that I devoured in a single day. It is perfect for readers looking for an emotional and powerful story of friendship and understanding oneself. These characters will leave a lasting impression in my mind, and I'm thankful for having had the chance to read their story.