Main characters: Andromeda “Anna” Fitzgerald, Kate Fitzgerald, Campbell Alexander
Time and place: ’90s and ’00s, US
Summary: Kate Fitzgerald got sick with an aggressive form of leukemia when she was two. The doctors gave her few years to live at the very most, depending on whether or not they’ll find a matching donor to supply her with the blood cells she needs. Out of sheer desperation, her parents went to doctors and had another baby, genetically engineered to match Kate, and thus Anna was born. Years have passed with Anna having to go through various invasive surgeries, donating platelets, blood and bone marrow to her sister, often having to put her life on hold so that she was always around in case Kate needed anything. Now, thirteen years old and having to donate a kidney to her sister, Anna has decided she’s had enough so she goes to a lawyer and asks him to sue her parents in order to force them to let her make her own medical decisions from then on.
The characters were all imperfect and likable for this very reason. Sara, whose world revolved around her sick child, ignoring the other two because there’s only so many hours in a day and only so many thoughts in a man’s head at a time (I am not saying, of course, that ignoring your children is a good thing but the circumstances do excuse some of her behaviour). Brian, the hero fireman and the head of an unhappy family, with his own demons and his love for astronomy. Jesse, the older brother turned delinquent out of a desperate hope that this is the way to be noticed by others. Campbell Alexander, the lawyer, with his frail health and his haunted past. Julia, Anna’s guardian appointed by the court, with her lonely life and memories of a time with pink hair and self-sufficiency. Kate, the teenager with a life spent mostly in hospitals. And Anna, disconcerted, torn between opposing feelings, the love for her family, her mother and sister, but also dreaming of a time when she’d be able to go any place and follow any path she chooses.
I have loved (and been very impressed by) the fact that the story in the book is so complex it’s practically impossible to take sides, as the reader can relate to any of the characters in the book, understanding their faults and the choices that made them become the people they are. There is no set answer to the situation the characters are in, no black and white, no definite right and wrong. Anna feels she has the right to be selfish after 13 years of altruism, and can anyone blame her? Can anyone deny her the right to a life of her own? Of course not, but neither can anyone condemn Kate to death (because that is precisely what denying her the kidney would mean for her). Practically a lose-lose situation for little Anna, and the reader is drawn in hoping for an ending that’ll hurt her (and her family) the least.
Everything would have been a lot easier if at least one of the parties involved was uncaring, mean or had bad intentions. All the fingers would have pointed towards that character, problem solved. Only it’s not like that. Sure, Sara, the girls’ mother, doesn’t seem, most of the times, to care about all her children, because Kate (the needy one, the dying one) is always foremost in her thoughts. But, as the story unfurls, we see that we are wrong, that even though she doesn’t know how to show it she is the mother of all her children and she loves them all. A realization which only serves to up the sadness of it all up a notch, because both Jesse and Anna, the not-Kate children, have psychological issues, their subconscious wanting nothing more than to be noticed by others (as opposed to their actual lives which they live in the shadow of Kate).
A quote from Jesse (the brother):
I wound up that day at the middle of an intersection, smack under the traffic light, with taxis honking and a car swerving off to the left and a pair of cops running to keep me from getting killed. At the police station, when my dad came to get me, he asked what the hell I’d been thinking.
I hadn’t been thinking, actually. I was just trying to get to a place where I’d be noticed.
And one from Anna:
I USED TO PRETEND that I was just passing through this family on my way to my real one. It isn’t too much of a stretch, really—there’s Kate, the spitting image of my dad; and Jesse, the spitting image of my mom; and then there’s me, a collection of recessive genes that came out of left field. In the hospital cafeteria, eating rubberized French fries and red Jell-O, I’d glance around from table to table, thinking my bona fide parents might be just a tray away. They’d sob with sheer joy to find me, and whisk me off to our castle in Monaco or Romania and give me a maid that smelled like fresh sheets, and my own Bernese mountain dog, and a private phone line.
What I liked most: I was utterly charmed by the fact that Julia names her appliances. Her oven is Sylvia (I’m guessing for Sylvia Plath). The fridge is named Smilla (for its sense of snow). And her Braun coffee maker is named Eva.
What I liked least: The fact that the book lost a lot of what made it great (the impossibility to take sides, the moral conflict between the right to one’s own life and the possibility of saving the life of another) when nearing the end, turning the book from achingly dramatic to syrupy in a single scene (SPOILER: the scene where Anna denies everything she said, every single scene where she pleaded for the control of her own life and acted afraid of the surgery, and says that well, I actually couldn’t wait to give Kate my kidney but she made me do this because she wanted to die. And all of the sudden everything that gave the book its depth was gone. It went downhill from there too. END SPOILER).
Recommend it? Yes, I found it a great read and quite the page turner. Some people even liked the ending :D
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