By the age of eighteen, most of us have built up a considerable bank of life experiences. A majority of us have had personal relationships, gone travelling, and been exposed to both the positive and negative aspects that life has to offer. At the very least, we have developed an intricate understanding of how life works, and have discovered what can be expected in our everyday journeys.
Now imagine that you haven’t had those experiences, and that almost everything you know has been learnt from books and the internet. Imagine never feeling the grass between your toes, and never breathing in the fresh morning air. Imagine being allergic to the world, and being trapped inside the same building for seventeen years. This is Madeline Whittier’s reality. Diagnosed with SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) when she was only a baby, Madeline has not set foot outside the walls of her home for fear that an allergic reaction from the outside world could kill her. Her life consists of online classes, reading books, visiting her regulated ‘garden paradise’ and spending time with her mother Pauline (who’s also a doctor) and her nurse, Carla, who comes to the house on a daily basis. Because of her condition, she has no friends, and the only visitors she does have (some of her online tutors) must undergo a rigorous, hour-long sanitation ritual to be able to enter the house.
With so much time on her hands, and little to distract her, it’s no wonder that the arrival of new neighbours brings on so much interest for Madeline. As they go about their lives, Madeline starts compiling information about the family and their habits, and develops a fascination for the teenage son Olly, who is skilled at parkour and wears all black clothing. Before long, Olly notices the strange girl next door, and the pair start a tentative online friendship. As they begin to learn more about each other, they chance an illicit meeting (with the help of Carla) and a close relationship starts to develop. Crazy risks and young love ensue, but is Maddy and Olly’s relationship going to be the catalyst that both enriches and destroys her life?
This debut novel is cleverly written. The author combines the sweetness of first love with the restrictions of a serious illness, but she doesn’t make the story in any way depressing, nor does she sugar-coat it to make everything ‘work’. The characters are realistic and credible, especially sheltered Maddy, energetic Olly and nervous Pauline- readers are able to relate to all aspects of their lives and develop an understanding of what motivates each of them to do what they do. The layout of the novel is also clever, with pages of narrative interspersed with medical notes, online chats, short observations and reviews, and a collection of drawings and illustrations (which were actually created by the author’s husband for the novel). These help to both break up the events of the narrative, and add further, to the storyline. Some readers may see the approaching twist to the ending, and some may be pleasantly surprised, but this is nonetheless a wonderful novel that will make you appreciate all the experiences that life throws at you.