Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review: Extraordinary Means

Title: Extraordinary Means
Author: Robyn Schneider
Publisher: Katherine Tegen / HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 26, 2015

"John Green's The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park in this darkly funny novel from the critically acclaimed author of The Beginning of Everything. Up until his diagnosis, Lane lived a fairly predictable life. But when he finds himself at a tuberculosis sanatorium called Latham House, he discovers an insular world with paradoxical rules, med sensors, and an eccentric yet utterly compelling confidant named Sadie - and life as Lane knows it will never be the same. Robyn Schneider's Extraordinary Means is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately hopeful story about the miracles of first love and second chances."

I'm going to kick things off by telling you to completely forget the first sentence of the blurb above. This book is NOT TFIOS meets Eleanor & Park. It's not. I've complained about books getting the TFIOS comparison kiss of death (pun intended) before, and it's my least favorite marketing ploy publishers love to use lately. Extraordinary Means is the newest installment in the niche corner of contemporary YA that is quickly becoming "sick-lit," but TFIOS this is not. It's better. Yeah, I'm throwing down the gauntlet here and saying that I enjoyed Extraordinary Means more than The Fault in Our Stars. Not like reading is a competition, but still. Now you undoubtedly want to know why, and I'll gladly tell you. Not to sound insensitive, but there are lots of books about kids with cancer. Kids with tuberculosis? Now that's new for this century.

The premise of Extraordinary Means is fascinating: in the near-future there is an epidemic of a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, causing those infected to be sent away to sanatoriums, where our two narrators Lane and Sadie meet. Some potential readers may wonder if there's really a difference between kids with tuberculosis and kids with cancer...but there is, there is. This is going into personal stuff, but years ago I had a positive TB skin test, and became obsessed with the thought that I might develop active TB. No such thing happened, but I still have nightmares where I cough up blood and my lungs atrophy with every breath. So there was never a question of me not reading this book. Robyn Schneider is a bioethicist, so her knowledge and research created a sound medical foundation upon which to build this story about two teenagers trying to live their lives in an environment that exists because they're dying.

Schneider is a master of the "real teen prose," as evidenced by her much-loved previous novel The Beginning of Everything. Her characters are believable (I've known many Lanes in my life, and even a Sadie or two), they have realistic conversations, and act like actual teens - Lane's frank commentary on masturbation is a brilliant example. The characters are ill, but they're at a glorified boarding school, so they do what any normal teen would: they fight the system. Sneaking out and evading room checks and smuggling contraband...all the same things I did at boarding school. But it happens through the lens of TB, so there are med sensors that record their vital signs, strict nutrition guidelines, and constantly open windows for fresh air.

Extraordinary Means is a character-driven novel, and the narration is split between Lane and Sadie. Their relationship develops at a good pace, and the moments they share are wonderful and painful in all the ways first loves are. The friendships, especially the hilarious group dynamic, provide an anchor for the story that sometimes makes the reader forget why they're at Latham. The characters are all fleshed out and complex, and you see them each struggle with being themselves apart from their TB.

"Any of us could wake up the next morning with blood splattered across the pillow and a hole in our lungs so painful that having a broken heart on top of it would have been unbearable." (129)
As expected, there are very frank discussions about illness and death in Extraordinary Means, and there are very sad moments. The characters are confronted not only with the prospect of dying themselves, but also potentially losing every one of their friends. So many books force feed readers some moral about always having hope and just turning on a light in the darkest times and whatnot. But here's the thing: sometimes there is nothing more cruel than having hope. That idea gets explored considerably in Extraordinary Means. There's a theme throughout the novel about a potential cure, and it turns the characters' world upside down with dizzying, impossible hope for "what if."

"It had hurt to accept what was wrong with me, but it hurt even more to have hope." (215)

Extraordinary Means is therefore a deeply sad novel, and it quite simply left me devastated. More so than TFIOS or any other, because Schneider so strongly evokes the painful, desperate possibility of hope. Readers will feel it just as much as the characters, and there are a multitude of lines that will quietly break your heart:

"...they were just empty hospital words, the kind that you wish were true because the alternative is too painful to bear."

This book is more than just sadness, though. It's devastating and hilarious and clever and hopeful and real. And many more adjectives but that's probably enough for now. I know that some people just cannot get into "sick-lit" but I'd still recommend that you consider this. If you need a good cry, if your favorite author or composer died of "consumption," if you agree with Sadie that living and dying are different words for the same thing, if sometimes you have to try and beat the odds...Extraordinary Means needs to be the book you pick up next. A friend responded to my Extraordinary Means snapchat with "ugh that sounds awful," and if you're that kind of person, then I can't help you. Don't read this book because it will be wasted on you. But if you can appreciate that sad stories are still worth telling, and that you have to live on your own terms, then give this a shot.

Life goes on, until it doesn't.

Rating: 5 stars

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