|Canal boat in Oxford, England on a rare sunny day.|
Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut young adult novel from 2016. The premise was original and meaningful: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming, feel-good stories I've ever read.
I was initially put off by the protagonist's crass language and her popular clique, but once the ship set sail (about fifty pages in), seventeen-year-old Maddie became a sympathetic character who struggles to support her beloved grandmother while dealing with her own fear of death. Widowed Gram surprises her WASPy family by inviting along the secret love of her life, a Jamaican American jazz musician. Despite the tragedy, it's a fun trip.
The diverse family also includes a gay uncle and his husband, a Jewish father, a frustrated suburban mother, a broody artistic brother, a great aunt with dementia, and a Barbie doll cousin. The family members alternate realistically between irritating and endearing. All characters were well developed, including the other families on the cruise. I especially loved the close friendship Maddie develops with a young mother and her baby.
The around-the-world setting was entertaining. I won't reveal the secret itinerary since the journey has hidden meaning. The cultural details were well drawn and interesting, and despite the variety of settings, the narrative never felt choppy or superficial. I'm guessing that the author is well-traveled and grew up watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Since I'd never go on a cruise due to seasickness, I enjoyed this virtual vacation. The narrative also fit my year of sabbatical travel.
The poignant voice was true to teens:
"Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. It's harder to hold back than a sneeze, but I do it."
"'My life has been fabulous because I never listened to my parents.' My grandmother is peer-pressuring me."
"But if this trip has taught me anything, it's that the only thing guaranteed is this very moment."Given the wide age range of characters, this YA novel would appeal to adults too, especially to families dealing with terminal illness. I read the ebook in Japan during the miserable month of November, and it was the best distraction. The story now helps me find the emotional strength to support my mother-in-law, who was diagnosed yesterday with terminal liver cancer after surviving breast cancer last year. For Hanukkah, I had bought the hardcover for my 19-year-old daughter, who is finding comfort in it too. Luckily her beloved granny is British and is therefore receiving excellent care from her Muslim oncologist and free medical insurance via the National Health Service. My children will be joining us in England next week. The granny-grandson Trans-Siberian Railway trip, planned to celebrate my son's graduation, is now only a dream. My mother-in-law will start chemo soon. We are grateful for this time together as a family.
|Photo from School Library Journal: http://tinyurl.com/hn9b4cb. The Loose Ends List won a Best Undercover Award.|
|Carrie Firestone, author's photo|
Included in my Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016 list.
Reviewer's Disclaimer: the author and I share a literary agent.
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