I picked this up without knowing much about it beyond the concept. Maisie is sixteen years old, out on a run and is severely burned when lightening strikes. Before the accident, she has a perfect boyfriend and fantastic grades, as she’s about to finish her junior year of high school. The electrical fire completely destroys part of her face, and her best long term recovery option becomes a transplant.
The sentence from the blurb which really caught my interest was: As Maisie discovers how much her looks did and didn’t shape her relationship to the world, she has to redefine her own identity, and figure out what ‘lucky’ really means.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book – it’s YA fiction with the common themes (boyfriends, best friends, high school social politics and parties) but with a massive shift in how Maisie experiences them. Equally it is a concept book aiming to explore themes about identity and how we construct our inner selves in relation to how we look and feel physically. It sits slightly outside the current trends within YA for books exploring mental health – obviously Maisie’s mental health recovery forms a large element of the story, but it is strongly connected with her physical experience and changes. I was incredibly impressed with how Alyssa Sheinmel handles all of these seemingly separate factors to create a wonderfully wholly story.
Books that hinge on a single concept can sometimes fall flat for me – when the single ‘what if’ that the author began with hasn’t fails to flesh out into a whole and unique story. A story which is too generic is not interesting, but Sheinmel very deftly handles a story which can be taken as a broad moral lesson in compassion and understanding, yes, but more importantly it underlines how the recovery process from such a life-changing event is different for everyone who experiences it.
The whole book is exquisitely well written, but the first chapter is an excellent example of a very controlled scene from the author. Sheinmel introduces the character and gives us so much to like and be interested about in her – we know about her relationship, her interests, how driven she is, how clear her goals are, what her home life is like. We get a sense of who she is and where she fits within her own life, her pleasures and pains, and very quickly, we care about her – all these little things add up and present us with a whole life so we fully comprehend what is damaged when Maisie has her ‘accident’. I found this incredibly important – the first thing which the narrative centres itself around is Maisie.
I adored Sheinmel’s exploration of how the people surrounding Maisie can get things wrong while trying to be helpful. Her post-trauma relationship with Chirag is especially interesting to me, because Sheinmel successfully explores one of the aspects of relationships at that age which doesn’t always go so well expressed in the parts of their relationship are unspoken and private to each of them. Chirag in Maisie’s head and in Maisie’s reality don’t always match up – while she is in the hospital she simultaneously comforts herself by imagining him there being interested in the medicine side of everything, asking questions, supporting her, and equally doesn’t want him to actually visit her yet. She is scared of him seeing the change in her.
The other incredibly valuable and complex subject Sheinmel touches on is that of the Perfect Victim – the person who has been through trauma and come out enlightened, inspired and ready to motivate others with their story. The two sides of the value in this are very well explored – from the real benefit imparted, to the misleading impression that inspiration porn might give to others still in the middle of their trauma (i.e. you should be able to recover and be enlightened and always happy, you should be grateful this happened to you because it gave you perspective, don’t you feel lucky it wasn’t worse, etc.)
The complex and contradictory nature of the emotions make this novel an incredibly impressive work. I am certain that there is plenty to be found on numerous rereads, and I’m certain it would make a fantastic choice of a book group to discuss.
This was absolutely one of my favourite books of the year so far. It was not always an easy read, but it felt like a necessary read – provoking many reflections and emotions, it taught me something I hadn’t realised I needed to learn. It leaves a strong message about expectations and identity – a reminder that survivors should not need to be perfect, but equally, those around them cannot be either.