Book Review: Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon (2015)

September 4th, 2015 7:00 am by mad mags

This Impossible Life

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence and child abuse.)

Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backwards until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.

If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change. Today is the same as yesterday. Tomorrow will be the same as today. In the Book of Maddy, all the chapters are the same.

Until Olly.

According to the Big Bang theory, the universe came into being in one single moment – a cosmic cataclysm that gave birth to black holes, brown dwarfs, matter and dark matter, energy and dark energy. It gave birth to galaxies and stars and moons and suns and planets and oceans. It’s a hard concept to hold on to – the idea that there was a time before us. A time before time.

In the beginning there was nothing. And then there was everything.

Eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier has no memories of her father and older brother, who died in a tragic car accident when she was just a few months old. Nor does she remember life on the Outside: the feel of the sun’s rays shining directly on her skin; of warm, wet sand squishing between her toes; or of a salty ocean breeze tickling her face and tousling her hair. Maddy was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) shortly after the accident, and has spent the past fifteen years confined to her home, with only her mom Pauline and full-time nurse Carla for company.

Maddy doesn’t live in a bubble per se, but close to it: her house is specially outfitted with industrial air filters, which keep out anything over .3 microns and recycles the air completely every four hours. An airlock separates the front entrance from the rest of the house, and all visitors must undergo an exhaustive physical exam, background check, and thorough decontamination before entering.

Despite her condition, Maddy is happy. She’s homeschooled, with a bevy of tutors she meets with online. (Her favorite is Mr. Waterman, her architecture instructor.) She experiences what she can of the world through books, television, and the internet. Pauline – a doctor, as luck would have it – tries her best to give Maddy a sense of normalcy, with French-themed Friday Night Dinners and weekly games of Honor Pictionary and Fonetik Scrabble. All things considered, Maddy’s a pretty well-adjusted teenager.

Until Olly and his family move in next door, that is.

A former Mathlete (his father made him quit in favor of something more “manly,” like football) and parkour enthusiast, Olly is a ball of kinetic energy: “His body is his escape from the world, whereas I’m trapped in mine.” He’s just as nerdy and funny and quirky as Maddy, but in ways more complementary than identical. And, just like Maddy, Olly has a secret: his dad’s an abusive alcoholic. Maddy has had a literal window seat to more than one of his violent outbursts. Both young adults eschew pity; instead, they find friendship and solace in each other – first, over short messages scrawled on windowpanes from across the yard that divides them, and later via a series of emails and instant messages.

Olly is dangerous, for he makes Maddy want more: an impossible life. Is it worth courting death to truly live?

So I pretty much devoured this book. One afternoon, two sittings (I could wait for dinner, but my dogs were not having it!) – which is pretty much unheard of for me. I’m a voracious reader, but not to the tune of a book a day. But Everything, Everything is both riveting and a surprisingly quick read.

The story unfolds both through traditional narrative as well as Maddy’s diary entries, sketches, charts, IM chat logs, and emails, making for a wonderfully unique and entertaining read. The chapters are short and punchy, sometimes consisting of just a single illustration (all of which are done by Yoon’s husband David; how cute is that?!). Among my favorites are Maddy’s Life Is Short (TM) Spoiler Reviews. (Lord of the Flies: “Spoiler alert: Boys are savages.”) I guess this format runs the risk of feeling a bit gimmicky, but Yoon does a lovely job of it; the graphic elements make me feel as though I know Maddy that much better.

Maddy, by the way? Adorable. Olly? Adorable. Maddy and Olly together? Super-duper-freaking-adorable. I’m not usually big on romance – I prefer it as a side dish to a main course of science fiction or fantasy, if at all – but I found myself rooting for these two, hard. Their relationship is just magical, and the courtship via IM sure took me back to my college days. Olly, what a babe.

I also love the breadth of diversity here; Yoon positively suffuses the story with it. Maddy is biracial: her mom is third generation Japanese-American, and her father was black. Though she can’t remember her dad, Maddy imagines that she’s “an exact fifty-fifty mixture” of them both: warm brown skin halfway between her mom’s pale olive skin and her dad’s richer dark brown tone, and “big and long and wavy hair” that’s not as curly as his, but not straight like hers. Maddy’s favorite subject is architecture, a field that’s still largely dominated by white men. (See, e.g., these statistics from the AIA.)

Olly is white, and while race and ethnicity are topics of discussion, no one bats an eye at their (interracial) relationship. (Although, to be fair, all the fretting hinges on that fact that there shouldn’t even be a relationship.) Nurse Carla Flores was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States (against her family’s wishes) when she was a young woman. And then there’s Zach, Olly’s friend in Maui, who hasn’t yet come out to his parents (“How am I gonna tell them that their first-born son wants to be the African-American Freddie Mercury?”).

Diversity is simply treated like a fact of life, much like parents wanting to shield their children from the outside world, and the infinite potential for pain that it carries – and the inevitable pushback they experience from teenagers eager to find their own way. In many ways, Maddy’s extreme situation is a metaphor for the more commonplace adolescent experience: the desire to break away from one’s parents, live life unfiltered, explore one’s awakening sexuality. This can prove dangerous even in the most favorable of circumstances: unplanned pregnancies, STDs, drug addiction, interpersonal violence. But for Maddie, just breathing the same air as Olly could prove a matter of life and death.

Maddy’s confinement also speaks to the complexities of domestic abuse: though she’s forced to bear witness to Olly’s father’s violent behavior, there’s little she can do to stop it, trapped as she is in the glass cage she calls home.

There’s so much I love about Everything, Everything – except for the ending, that is. It half-jokingly (and with no small amount of dread) popped into my head about halfway through the book, but I quickly dismissed it as too out there. And it is pretty over the top: very soap opera-y, with shades of Law & Order: SVU. It feels a little cheap, like an easy out: a rather pat way to bring our ill-fated lovers together. But Yoon handles it astonishingly well, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t happy to see Maddy and Olly get their happy ending. Emotionally, it got me right in the feels; intellectually, I’m still a little peeved.

That said. While the ending isn’t my favorite – and certainly not the path I would have chosen – it didn’t altogether spoil the book for me. Far from it. Everything, Everything is just so terribly sweet and adorable, and not in a saccharine way. I loved pretty much everyone in it – Maddy and Olly and Carla and Kara and Zach; even Pauline I felt a tiny sliver of sympathy for – and Yoon’s storytelling is both refreshing and engaging. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Madeline Furukawa Whittier has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) and has spent the past fifteen years confined to her house with only her mom and full-time nurse for company. Maddy is biracial: her mom Pauline is third generation Japanese-American, and her father was African-American. Both Maddy’s father and older brother died in a car accident when she was only a few months old. Her nurse, Carla Flores, is Mexican-American. Maddy’s new neighbor/friend/suitor Olly is white and lives in a violent situation. His father, an alcoholic, physically and verbally abuses his wife and children. Olly’s friend Zack is black, with “enormous dreadlocks.” He’s also gay and an aspiring musician, both of which he keeps a secret from his parents (“How am I gonna tell them that their first-born son wants to be the African-American Freddie Mercury?”). Pauline suffers from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Maddy complains that boys in The Lord of the Flies spend too much time plotting to kill pigs, which makes her crave bacon. When they visit Maui, Olly “jokes that he wants to eat all the fish that [they] saw while snorkeling.”


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One Response to “Book Review: Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon (2015)”

  1. saraphina Says:

    in the end did madline leave olly to leave again or did he take her with her(the second time)

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