It is 1976 and Vanessa's mother is traveling to Mexico on a regular basis to receive treatment for her leukemia. Despite their promise, these treatments (which are not approved for use in the United States) are not helping and soon Vanessa's mom breaks the news that she is terminal. Vanessa and her two sisters are struggling with the knowledge that everything they do is probably the last time with their mother. Vanessa finds some comfort in her piano playing even though she can't consider the possibility of attending a conservatory what with all the turmoil that already exists in the family. She is also finding solace from Caleb, another cancer patient who comes to stay with their family so that he and his mother won't have to travel so far to get to the clinic in Mexico. But it turns out that sometimes there are things worse than cancer.
The more I reflect on this book the more I find myself annoyed with it even though I gave it three stars. I see many other reviews mentioning the exquisite writing style but to me the writing was in the style of other books I've read recently and haven't liked. It seemed somewhat hazy and detached - almost purposely low key as if to make a point about contrasting the writing style with the outrageous events that are happening in the plot. We Were Liars is an example of another book written this way. It feels pretentious and I don't like it.
About 2/3 of the way into the book Vanessa goes to visit her music teacher. Her teacher has pictures of her two grown sons, Jackson and Philip. Then there is this passage:
"She taps Jackson. 'He was drafted the first year of the war. He died after a few weeks in Vietnam.'
That would have been in 1970. He's been dead for six years, since before I met Mrs. Albright."
I stopped reading there to ponder that and to try to think about what I knew about the Vietnam War. I was pretty sure it started before 1970 so I went to a few websites to double check myself. Sure enough, the war started many years before 1970. Then I went back and reread the passage about ten times thinking that I must've somehow misinterpreted it. Surely the author didn't say that the war started in 1970, right? I couldn't come up with a different way to look at that. Then I ran it by my husband and a close friend and neither of them could think of a different way to interpret that. So I have a real problem with that and, as you can obviously see, it completely drew me out of the story.
I wonder sometimes if people love books or movies simply because they didn't see the twist coming. Is it the M. Night Shyamalan effect? I DID see the twist coming and even guessed what it was so I can't separate that out from my overall impression, but I am speculating that some of the rave reviews are based on the surprise readers had about that revelation. In regards to that twist, more should've been explained about Dad's need to protect the kids. The basis for his fear and the danger they faced was not explicit and I think it would be unclear to some readers.
Another issue was
brought to my attention by another reviewer on Goodreads. She wrote
about the blurb on the back that makes a big point about how the
neighbors call the sisters brats and despise them. However, this is not
or barely mentioned in the book. It seems to me that everyone is
pretty nice to them. Certainly people at school are supportive. Is
this from an earlier edition of the book or is it just a way to try to
Adrienne's character felt overly dramatic and poser-ish although I have certainly known people exactly like her. The swearing is an issue for me in terms of selling the book to readers because it shows up very early. On page six she says "shit-faced rat fucker" in one of the few references to why people don't like them. That doesn't mean anything when it comes to having the book in my library collection, but having the f word so early in the book makes it difficult to put it on any sort of list that could be considered "required" in any way.
Are there more issues? Probably but this is enough for now. Except that I will say this has a very bad cover as well. That is not the author's responsibility but she ought to consider saying something to the publisher for any future editions. I'm not getting any of the references on there and even if it all tied into the story somehow, it will not sell to teens at all.