Book Review: Everything, Everything

As an adult, I’ve really come to enjoy reading YA novels. Don’t get me wrong, I — Literary Fiction tends to still be my favorite and I still do love getting lost in the classics. It’s just that, after years of either refusing to read YA or denying that I read YA, I’m over that and am now embracing it.

I’m always on the lookout for really good YA, the same as I’m on the lookout for any good books in general. I received an ARC of Nicola Yoon’s debut Everything, Everything via NetGalley sometime ago and because I’m behind on basically life, I’m only now getting to post about it.

I was super excited about Everything, Everything from the get-go. That cover is gorgeous! It’s a debut novel! The protagonist is biracial! The author is a POC! The novel has illustrations! The illustrations were done by the author’s husband! Who is also a POC! I was all over Everything, Everything the moment I heard about it. How could I not be?

Everything, Everything ended up being a perfectly lovely, though not perfect read.

The basic plot of Everything, Everything, is really quite simple: Maddy, our heroine, lives with a rare illness which causes her to be allergic to the outside world. As such, Maddy lives entirely in her own home, with only her physician mom and nurse, Carla for real life companionship. Maddy spies the new body who’s just moved in next door, Olly, and a friendship which begins via messages on their windows leads to a life changing love story.

I found that Yoon was able to craft Maddy, her mom and Carla really well. I felt like the audience was able to have a very clear understanding of those characters and their personalities. They felt realistic and true. Not only do the characters themselves feel true, but their relationships to  Maddy are fantastic – they’re rich and loving and how they feel towards Maddy – and she towards them – leaps off the page.

Olly, on the other than, I felt was a bit more opaque, but it’s something I’m willing to hand wave, which I’ll get to later.

Everything, Everything is a breeze to get through – it’s feel snappy and as if it flows along at a nice, steady pace while you’re reading. I do think that some of the events of the novel – particularly those after the twist – happen a bit too rapidly though.

The twist, I’ve noticed, seems to be a point of contention for many (along with the nature of Maddy and Olly’s love affair). If you don’t want spoilers, please feel free to skip this:

Maddy isn’t actually sick.

That’s right.

Maddy is not actually suffering from a deadly disease. This, she finds out after an attempt to claim her life for her own and a short hop to Hawaii with Olly.

It turns out that Maddy’s mom basically had a bit of a mental breakdown following the deaths of Maddie’s father and brother, from which she never recovered. As half her family was killed by an overworked, under rested trucker on the highway, Maddy’s mom essentially overreacts when Maddy is ill as a baby and convinces herself Maddie has this deadly disease. It was her way of trying to protect Maddy from the world since the world is what killed her husband and first born child.

I didn’t hate it.

I mean, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate the twist as much as others seemed to.

I’ve heard people say that they feel like the twist added an element of “don’t trust your parents!” to Everything, Everything and I feel that’s incorrect and really disingenuous. I don’t think that’s what Yoon was going for here at all, considering she has a kid. I also don’t think it’s meant to be read like that either.

Maddy’s mom is someone who has never recovered from a serious trauma. She lost half of her little family in what was literally the blink of an eye. She had a mental breakdown, which I feel is understandable. It was never addressed or treated and she dealt in what was the best or only way she had: by throwing herself in to the care and protection of her one remaining child; the one remaining piece of the family she built for herself. And she went completely and utterly overboard. Untreated mental illness is devastating and can have catastrophic effects.

Maddy’s mom was completely wrong to do as she did. But she wasn’t evil.

I think part of the reason so many dislike the twist is because of how quickly events move following this revelation. Maddy is pissed, mom goes to therapy, Maddy sends emails to try and make up with Olly (who has now moved to NYC), Maddy hops on a plan to NYC, meets Olly at a book shop and FIN. It is too quickly once you’ve torn down a premise that has basically taken up the first 80% of the novel. Things move at a rapid pace and these are things that should take more time so we can see the nuance. Additionally, it makes it feel like the author had painted herself into a box concerning this Starcrossed-By-Way-Of-Illness romance and used the twist as an escape hatch to run us back to Normal Teen Romance World. It does sort of cheapen the emergence of Maddy’s independence and her regret that was so evident in the chapters above because she now no longer has to deal the effects of her previous decisions. She’s not ill so she can live as normally as she possibly can with the boy she’s in love with.

I don’t think the author created that twist as an escape hatch though — I feel as though the events of the last 20% of the novel were things she really wanted to happen but that perhaps she didn’t realize needed to be fleshed out more than they were. In that case, her editor really should have caught that. I feel like we’re meant to continue to see the messages of the first bit of the novel – coming into your own self, finding your inner strength – as messages for the last bit as well. Maddie doesn’t change her core person because she figures out that her illness is a lie. She hasn’t become a different person and it doesn’t erase what she’s done. She’s still the girl who decided that she had to live her life on her own terms and strike out; she’s still the girl who realizes that perhaps she acted in haste. It’s only now that she doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of that hasty behavior. I think, at the end, we’re supposed to still find Maddy as strong as she was before, since she basically doesn’t know the world outside her house and Hawaii and she still hops a plane 3,000 miles away to the East Coast with no real plan. I think the novel is still meant to the about self realization and inner strength and making your own life.

I do agree that something different needed to be done, though, either in the structure or in how the end is handled. As it currently is, the twist is this gigantic deus-ex-machina and I can understand why people went “HUH?” I get why they fell like the author painted herself into a corner and went “Well, damn it! I’m just gonna slip this in…”.

I’ve noticed people are also wondering about how Maddy’s mom got away with the lies for so long. This isn’t exactly all that strange to me: I love my country, but please let us not pretend that the United States and all our systems are foolproof. If you do, I will say you’re an idiot.

Anyone who’s lived here for any decent amount of time should know that the state and local government agencies that actually interact with the public and do stuff are overworked and understaffed (And yes, I do say this as the child of a state employee. I get to hear all the dirt). There’s literally no reason that the authorities would have had to check up on Maddy or her mom. None.

Think about it, all the state really cares about is that, as a kid, you get your vaccines, you’re in school and you’re not being beaten/mistreated by your parents/caregivers.

We’re not told that Maddy didn’t get vaccinated – medical house calls do still exist. And even if Maddy wasn’t vaccinated, vaccine exemptions are A Thing and it’s not like California didn’t have a fairly low bar for getting a exemption. Regarding schooling – parents can homeschool their kids at will and you don’t have to provide sheets of medical documentation saying that your kid has an autoimmune disease. You can just do it and as long as you’re meeting state requirements, they have essentially no fucks to give. And let’s face it — if Maddy wasn’t vaccinated, the fact that she was home schooled was going to give the state even less of a reason to care about her vaccination status, since this typically only comes into play for the government when you’re registering  for school.

In the US, it also tends to be a bit of a clusterfuck when it comes to getting involved in a child’s mistreatment.  First, a complaint needs to be made. Then evidence gathered. And hell, depending on where you are, the mistreatment may have to be fucking major before anything happens. Often, numerous complaints have to be made because again, the agencies handling these issues have so much work to deal with, not much funding and too little staff to investigate effectively. This is one of the reasons you often hear about some parent having killed their kid after having already been investigated by Child Protective Services – it often takes a lot to remove a child from a home and it’s very often not simple. And again, if there’s no complaint, there’s literally no reason for the state to get involved in the first place:  it’s not like state social workers are walking down streets, knocking on doors, asking parents for their kid’s medical records. They aren’t taking kids in for testing and having numerous doctors verifying the results.

Maddy’s nurses probably didn’t ask to see any official paper work re: the diagnosis because 1) what parent would lie about an illness? and 2) who is going to ask a parent if they’re lying about a kid’s illness without having first at least found something that made them a bit suspicious.

Out of all involved, Maddy, would have been the person most likely to wonder if something was shady. I would assume that Maddy would have at some point, researched the illness and figured out that something didn’t quite flow, but she was also an only child who was super close to her mother without any other real personal interaction other than her nurse. And she would have had no reason not to believe her mom.

So, yes, Yoon didn’t explain the logistics of the faking of Maddy’s disease, but I’m not bothered by it.  Considering the factors I stated above, I’m not interested in her naming the logistics, nor do I feel that it makes the premise of the novel impossible. Because it doesn’t! If I recall correctly, years ago, there were parents who did fake a child’s disease.

And think about it — if parents faking illness wasn’t a thing that actually did happen, we wouldn’t have the term “Munchausen by proxy syndrome”.  And oh, look, I just found an article about a mom doing this very thing:

Boom. There you go.

The criticism of the romance between Olly and Maddy to me bears more weight – I can see where this comes from and I can see why people dislike it. I actually can understand Maddy’s behavior – its not unreasonable to me that she would fall in love with the first boy she’s ever actually physically been around. That doesn’t make it real love, of course. But I think it’s easy to see that Maddy, who hasn’t ever been in this situation before, would believe it to be real love. It’s her first, real interaction with the someone her own age in the world outside the walls of her house. Give her a break, guys.

Olly’s behavior is more iffy to me, if only because he’s a cipher. I don’t feel as if we know all that much about him. He’s cute and has an abusive dad, a mom who bakes terrible cakes and a sister who smokes and he likes math. That basically seems to be the gamut of his characterization.

I struggle with this because I’m not sure if it was meant to be this way. Is Olly meant to read like a cipher, springboarding off the naivety of Maddy’s understanding of and interaction with the real world? Or is this a case of the author simply failing to characterize Olly sharply enough to stand as a snapshot of a real person? I’m not sure and I’m also not sure how I want to read Olly. Unlike the other issues and factors of Everything, Everything, I’m not sure how I want to read Olly and this impacts the effectiveness and the romance for me.

All in all, baring a few issues, I do think Everything, Everything is a nice read. It’s not groundbreaking and it’s not a landmark YA. It’s an easy, lazy Saturday sort of read when you want to read something but just do not have it in you to read something with more teeth and more weight. It’s fluff, but nice fluff and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.