review: Side Effects
Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss. Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-167-9) $16.95
I felt an immediate affinity with this book when I read the author's note at the beginning: "And, as if it doesn't suck enough to have cancer, practically every time you pick up a book or see movies where characters get sick, you know they'll be dead by the last scene." When my best friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, all she or I knew about it was that you always die at the end. But she didn't die--and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to mention that the heroine of this book doesn't die either.
Side Effects is a first-person story narrated by Izzy, a junior high school girl with a generally sardonic view of life:
"I'd left my notebook and everything in the car, or I might have done a drawing of that weird wire thing with the colored beads, which exists only in doctors' waiting rooms. I wonder what was supposed to be fun about it. All I'd ever wanted to do was get the beads off the damn thing so I could play with them. Maybe that toy--if you can even call it a toy--was meant to teach frustration and hopelessness. Hey kids! Feeling sick? Scared of the doctor? Well, here are some beads you can't have! Ha-ha!"
Izzy's dark side gets to come out in full force when her swollen glands turn out to be a symptom of Lymphoma, a form of cancer. A fairly normal life of sucky school, doodling and crushes on cute guys becomes one of hospitals, pain, vomiting, obnoxiously upbeat social workers, and freaked-out friends. Scary, invasive, gross medical procedures aren't much fun to read about, but Izzy's quirky narrative keeps the story going: "Insert girl. Radiate. Deafen. Remove." The descriptions of reactions of people around her--one "friend" telling her she must have "done something really bad in a former life," others making an incredibly tasteless video for "laugh therapy"--can be even harder to read about. "This is not the cancer channel," Izzy spits out, when a former preschool teacher wants to bring some girls by for a visit. "There will be no show!"
This is definitely not a "feel-good" story--nor would it want to be--but it's not an exercise in misery, either. There's relief from tragedy in Izzy's smart-mouth conversations with her best friend, and in her family's coping mechanisms:
"Through the front window, I heard dad proudly tell our next-door neighbor that I'd had a two-hundred-dollar vomit. [from throwing up Marinol, medical marijuana.]
"'Hey! She could probably sell that one the street!' Martin said. 'You could make a fortune selling puke to the potheads.'"
And there is Izzy's discovery that despite being cancer kid to many, some people still "get" her, including a cute boy she never noticed before.
Side Effects finishes rather abruptly. Towards the end, Izzy is too ill to even care that she believes the treatment isn't working: "But I didn't quit the chemo. I didn't have the strength. I got in the car when I was told to. I stuck out my arm when I was asked to. I threw up when I had to, and I slept when I could. My birthday came, and I blew out the candles. But when Kay told me to make a wish, it took a while to think of one." Then in the next six pages she graduates from junior high, is pronounced cancer free, and gives us a brief summary of her current life. After suffering so much with her, it feels too fast. But the cover of the book, an awesome shot of a bald girl sticking both fists in the air, invites us in to share a triumph, and we do share one. And how terrific to have a book now--a funny, intense, absorbing book--that lets us know that kids with cancer don't always die in the last chapter. (13 & up)