There are many ways to do cancer books. First, there are really good, self-aware, non-preachy ones, like The Fault In Our Stars or Me and Earl and a Dying Girl. Then there are Nicholas Sparks cancer books, which... let’s just say they aren’t our favorite around these parts. And THEN, there’s Lurlene McDaniel.
Lurlene McDaniel books are the Lifetime movies of cancer books. This woman has churned out title after title of these since the early 90s. Books like Baby Alicia is Dying and Sixteen and Dying and Too Young to Die and Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever and I Want to Live. So many promising titles! I knew I needed in on the action, so I ordered about 30 Lurlene McDaniel books off of ebay.
And wow. Just wow. These books are something else. They demand a separate review format than what we normally do around here. Think Erin’s SVH reviews, but with more terminal illness.
First and foremost, the only way to read these is by contracting your own illness: liver failure! Because the best way to judge a book is by how many drinks you’ll need to get through it.
Official Lurlene McDaniel Drinking Game
Take a sip when:
*A new disease/tragic accident/other medical crisis is mentioned
*Every time a character has a physical deformation
*A character complains about their inability to connect with their disease-free former friends and classmates
*You read the word "remission"
*The bible is quoted
Take a shot when:
*There is a party in the hospital
*A character dies
*Any description of a medical procedure, for the duration of the description
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s talk about the rest of the review format!
Cover Story: Much like the category in our regular book reports, but these covers are in a class of terrible all of their own. They’re like romance novel covers, but with less romance and more cancer.
Featured Ailments: Why would we talk about the one-dimensional characters when the diseases are the actual stars of the story?
The So-Called Plot: Watch as I struggle to sum up the “plot” of the book. I guess I should technically give a spoiler warning, but I’m not sure you need one when everything is completely predictable and you’re not invested in any of the characters.
Notes from the Margin: In which I take my favorite quotes and present them out of context, with bonus scathing commentary!
Without further ado, I bring you:
I’ll Be Seeing You by Lurlene McDaniel
Drinks Taken: 16
Cover Story: Wow. I am in love with this cover. I even ordered this particular book separately, because it didn’t come in my lot of 24 from ebay. I wonder what it’s like to be a model who poses for these? “Ok, so we’re going to put a bandage across your eyes, and you--you’ll be standing over his shoulders in a bathrobe, looking wistful. No! Right side of the face to the camera, not left! You’re smiling too much, you’re supposed to be sad about how he’ll HATE you as soon as the bandages come off and he sees how ugly you are. Kyle, look in love. Even though you can’t see her, show your love through jaw bone. YES! This is perfect! Work it! WORK THOSE BANDAGES, KYLE! Wait, hold that for a moment while we rub more vaseline on the lens...”
Osteomyelitis is a bone infection following a surgery to repair a broken leg, following an accident with some roller blades. Hospital patient Carley’s particular complications include crankyness, deceptive hospital romance, and being an asshole to her doting older sister.
Spina Bifida is a tricky birth defect that has left Reba wheelchair-bound for life. Unlike Carley, her deformity has left her spunky, cheerful, and popular with everyone.
Blindness caused by attempting homemade rocket fuel has landed Kyle in the hospital. It may be temporary, or maybe he’ll never see again! Only time will tell. Side effects include feeling sorry one’s self, being an asshole to girls you like for not understanding your plight, and a disastrous case of insta-love.
But the real star of the show is a malignant brain tumor! This aggressive cancer led to chemotherapy and brain surgery that left Carley with part of her facial bones missing! Complications of this deformity include cripplingly low self-esteem, inability to make friends outside the hospital, self-centered behavior, and pathological lying.
The So-Called Plot: 16 year old Carley lands herself back in the hospital following a rollerblading accident, a place that she maybe hates even more than high school. Since she has no friends to visit her, she spends her days listening to books on tape and hanging out with Reba, the outgoing and cheerful girl with spina bifida. But when a cute new boy shows up in the ward, she allows herself a little hospital romance. There’s just one problem--she knows that nothing can happen once they leave the hospital. Because he’s a complete dumbass who doesn’t wear safety goggles, Kyle has been blinded by a chemistry experiment gone wrong. And if he regains vision, it’s curtains for Carley, because he’ll see how hideous she is and never want to speak to her again.
You see, Carley had brain cancer before, and now the left side of her face is missing several bones from the surgery. That’s why she has no friends, because all teenagers are superficial dicks. And also, because Carley is AFRAID that all teenagers are superficial dicks, so she doesn’t even try to make friends. Which, I guess is fair when you’re sixteen and have a facial deformity. But Kyle can’t see how ugly she is, so he is charmed by her brilliant wit, which we know is brilliant because every character in the book is constantly telling us how HILARIOUS Carley is. Carley finds herself secretly hoping that Kyle stays blind, because he’s the only boy who’s ever wanted to feel her up. Simultaneously, she plans to never speak to him again after checking out of the hospital, just in case his vision returns.
And then she comes up with this elaborate, bat-shit insane idea to have her hot sister pretend to be her in front of Kyle’s friends so he thinks she’s pretty, and for some reason hot sister goes along with this spectacularly bad plan? And then, of course it backfires when Kyle tries to stalk her after he gets his vision back, and eventually finds out the truth. And she’s all, “I HATE YOU BECAUSE YOU THINK I’M UGLY!” and he’s all “Whoa now, can we just talk about how you’re a crazy pathological liar?” and she’s all “I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!” And then the next day is Valentine’s Day, and he hires a sky-writer to fly a sign in front of her high school that says “Carley be mine -K.W.” And everyone at school is like, “wow, who is Carley? she must have the best boyfriend ever; sky-writers are so expensive and romantic.” and Carley thinks, “I’m so impressed by his overwrought romantic gesture, even though we’re only sixteen years old and this is weird, stalkery behavior. I guess I’ll call him after school.”
The End. No really, that’s the end. It takes a whole 200 pages to cover that convoluted plot, and they don’t even kiss.
Notes from the Margin:
Carley was aware that a small, perverse part of her was glad that Kyle couldn’t see. She felt bad about it, but also knew that his blindness was her safety net. So long as he couldn’t see her, he would think she was normal.
Carley, honey, I hate to break it to you, but having a symmetrical face is not what makes you normal. Not creating an elaborate plot to convince the boy you like that you are really your hot sister would be a big step towards normalcy.
A lump of tears lodged in Carley’s throat.
WHOA. I think they might have messed up more than your facial structure during that brain surgery, because that is not anatomically normal. You should get that checked out.
It should be mandatory for every healthy teenager in the country to go around in a wheelchair for one day so that they can see what life’s like for people who are maimed and deformed... the world looks different when you’re at eye-level with a person’s waist and helpless.
This is so misguided and offensive I can’t even. Some paralympians should go rough up hot sister, just enough that she gets a new perspective on how “helpless” the “maimed and deformed” are. I’m all for humans being less douchey to one another, but somehow I don’t think a bunch of teenagers playing in wheelchairs is going to solve the problem.
Because believe me, being pretty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, sometimes it’s the most awful burden in the world.
You know, you’re right, hot sister. Being pretty in high school IS a terrible burden, because there’s a much higher chance that you’ll grow up to be an asshole. While you’re busy telling your cancer-ridden, facially deformed, limping teenage sister how HARD it is to be pretty, the rest of us have to cultivate decent personalities, since we can’t all rely on our looks to coast through high school. Whereas you will probably continue to suck forever.
One Last Wish: Mother, Help Me Live by Lurlene McDaniel
Drinks Taken: 26
Cover Story: I have to give these covers points for being accurate, if heinous. You can tell that Sarah and her Mom are related by their matching expressions of disdain, and her mom’s apartment really does have ugly carpeting. The attention to plot detail here is much greater than we see with most shitty YA covers.
Leukemia is a form of cancer that necessitates chemo and a bone marrow transplant for protagonist Sarah. It results in hair loss, exhaustion, and getting kicked off the cheerleading squad.
But the real killer in Mother, Help Me Live is adoption. I bet you didn’t know adoption was a disease, did you? I didn’t either, but they way Sarah reacted to finding out she is adopted is only appropriate for things like a really douchey ex-boyfriend informing you that he has given you herpes (the gift that keeps on giving!). Adoption is a serious illness that leads to being an insensitive asshole to everyone you know, especially your younger siblings who didn’t do anything wrong and definitely don’t deserve your bullshit. It's also a deeply, deeply shameful affliction, and if you find that you are adopted, be sure to keep it a secret from everyone you know or they will hate you forever.
The So-Called Plot: Sarah is back in the hospital for a Leukemia relapse when she gets some terrible news. Her parents and siblings cannot give her a bone marrow transplant because Sarah was secretly adopted.
Sarah is livid and is generally horrible to her entire family for weeks. I get that she has a right to be mad at her parents, but she definitely doesn’t need to take it out on her little sister Tina. One day, in the midst of her fuming, Sarah wakes up from a nap to find a check for $100,000 from the mysterious “One Last Wish” foundation.
Using her need for a marrow donor as an excuse to search for her “real” mom (her words, not mine), Sarah hires a private investigator with her One Last Wish money. Which, 100K seems really expensive for a PI. If Keith Mars’ rates were that high, I think he and Veronica would have had a very different lifestyle. Anyway, the PI finds the birth mother, Janelle Warren, simply by asking the lawyer who settled the incredibly shady-sounding adoption. They don’t even have to get a court order on medical grounds. Apparently it’s really easy to access closed adoption records in Lurlene McDaniel’s universe. Janelle lives out in LA, so Sarah, Sarah’s “fake” mom, and the PI fly out to stalk her.
And big shocker. Sarah’s birth mother, Janelle, is not too jazzed to find the spawn of her fifteen year old closed adoption on her doorstep. She basically tells Sarah to be glad she didn’t have an abortion and to fuck off. Oh, and she can’t give Sarah a bone marrow transplant anyway, because she had breast cancer seven years ago. Cancer runs in the family!
Sarah returns home to a horrible infection and no potential donors, but an overwhelming sense of peace that yes, her family is her family. We are left to wonder whether she lives or dies as Tina goes on national television to encourage people to sign up to be marrow donors.
Notes from the Margin:
She was seeing “eyes of such a pale, clear, shade of blue as to resemble light streaming through a window.” Scoot Michaels had described them like that when she’d been eleven, and it had made her blush.”
Right, that’s exactly how eleven year old boys talk.
At least, here in the hospital, she didn’t have to face her friends and the life she’d left back home. What would they think when they found out she was adopted?
I’m going to go out on a branch here and say that if you’re friends react badly when they find out you’re adopted, that’s fucking weird behavior and you should definitely invest in some new friends.
She was certain that her birth mother, Janelle Warren, had wondered about the daughter she’d given away fifteen years before. Once Sarah contacted her, Janelle might be shocked but she would want to meet Sarah. And once she was tested for bone marrow compatibility, Janelle would be a match and would feel compelled to help Sarah.
Yeah, this won’t end badly at all.
Baby Alicia Is Dying by Lurlene McDaniel
Drinks Taken: 20
Cover Story: Thank god we have these generous white children to take care of our black, abandoned HIV-positive babies.
All the babies at ChildCare house are HIV-positive. It’s kind of hard to make jokes about HIV-positive babies.
The So-Called Plot: Desila knows all about parental neglect, because her mom and dad totally love her big sister Valerie more. This is probably why they named her Desila. While her parents are busy moving Valerie into college instead of caring that Desi is starting high school, Desi starts hanging out at a home for HIV-Positive babies and is instantly enamoured with the particularly adorable baby Alicia.
Deciding that she has no interest in extracurriculars at school despite having never tried any of them, Desi signs up to be a volunteer at ChildCare. Her mother is really unhappy about it because it’s 1993 and people are dumbasses who think AIDS is catching, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. Desi’s classmates also find out and are a bunch of dicks. One of her lab partners gets transferred to a different group because she thinks Desi will give her AIDS, and some other kids graffiti her locker with something so offensive that I refuse to transcribe it here. The only people who are not horrible are Perfect Valerie, who is busy complaining about how vapid she is and how she wished she did more meaningful things in high school like Desi, and Brian, Desi’s hot lab partner whom she refuses to acknowledge is attractive. Turns out Brian’s gay uncle had AIDS and died alone in a hospice in New York because people like Brian were horrible to him when he was alive, and now he’s all sad and remorseful.
Despite everyone’s protestations, Desi continues to work at ChildCare and become unhealthily attached to Baby Alicia, because Baby Alicia is like that baby in Misfits that has the superpower of making people want to be his parents. When Baby Alicia’s mother wants to meet with her daughter after being cleaned up and drug-free, Desi freaks out. Brian must really want to get in Desi’s pants, because he agrees to stalk the mother with her against all better judgement.
And then, Baby Alicia gets really, really sick. This comes to a shock to Desi, who apparently hasn’t noticed that she works in a house for HIV-positive babies or is in the very unsubtly-named Baby Alicia Is Dying. In her sadness, she finally bonds with her mother, who has always been a frigid bitch because Desi’s older brother died of SIDS when he was 3 months old. When Desi came along, her mom had what sounds like monster case of untreated postpartum depression, and they’ve had a terrible relationship ever since. But Baby Alicia dies and brings them closer together than ever before! Yay! And Baby Alicia’s Teen Mom is going back to school to get her diploma! Everyone wins! Except Baby Alicia, I guess.
Notes from the Margin:
Let’s start with an excerpt from the back cover, shall we?
Now 8 month old Alicia lives at ChildCare because she was given away by her sick teenage mother. Desi can relate to being unloved. Her parents give her all the material things she needs, but there seems to be a wall between her mother and herself.
You’re right, Desi. Your suburban white girl problems are pretty much identical to those of the HIV-Positive infant born to a drug-addicted teenage mother.
Desi didn’t think any mother deserved to have her baby returned if she had deliberately rejected it.
As always, Desi is totally right. When an impoverished, drugged-out new mother hands her sick baby over because she knows she cannot take care of it, and then cleans up, turns her life around, and can prove that she’s competent and can provide for her child, she should still never be allowed to see her baby again.
“It’s a real downer that she may have AIDS someday.”
Fucking DUH. Thanks Valerie. It's no wonder everyone thinks you're the dumb sister.
[She] looked around. Fresh mauve paint, matched floral-patterned sofas, and gorgeous arrangements of silk flowers made the living room look like a page from a decorator’s magazine.
That... sounds... hideous.
“People who hate everyone who’s different--blacks, gays, any minority--it doesn’t matter. They’re misguided jerks who spout ‘ethnic purity’ and have no tolerance for anyone who’s different from them. I think it’s a disease worse than AIDS.”
Amen! Congratulations, Brian. You singlehandedly made this book almost tolerable!
And that's all for this round. Did any of you read Lurlene McDaniel growing up? Which were your favorites?