Andrew Brawley is seventeen and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He blames himself for the death his parents and baby sister; they were killed in a car crash and he didn’t have the good graces to die with them. As a coping mechanism, Andrew decides to spend his life in the hospital where they passed. Andrew takes a job in the hospital cafeteria and volunteers in the ER and the pediatric ward. Along the way, he befriends Trevor and Lexi, two teenagers in pediatrics fighting cancer. Despite keeping busy with his job and the volunteering, Andrew knows that’s not his main duty. He’s charged himself with keeping Trevor and Lexi safe from the hospital social worker, a woman he calls Death. Death is omnipresent when grief is in the air; she swoops in to console the bereft while taking care of business. Andrew will stop at nothing to keep her high heels from clack-clacking into his friends’ rooms and taking them away.
This self-assigned duty grows when a special boy, Rusty, gets wheeled into the ER Rusty is the victim of a nasty hate crime that has left him burned on both legs and one arm. As Andrew covertly watches Rusty get rolled into the ER, moaning with pain, Andrew feels an immediate, special kinship with Rusty—not the least of all because they’re both gay. They bond over the books Andrew brings to read aloud to Rusty, they talk, and they share half-truths and secrets. But Death is always on Andrew’s mind and he knows that, in Death’s eyes, Andrew is the proverbial one-that-got-away. In order to escape Death, Andrew finally realizes he will have to escape the hospital…he plans to take Rusty with him.
Tragedy, however, strikes before Andrew can make good on his promise to escape. As his carefully contrived world of ER volunteerism and cafeteria work comes crumbling down, Andrew Brawley has to come to terms with the reality he’s ignored ever since his parents died.
Based on this story blurb, I was expecting this book to hinge a lot on physical disabilities. I imagined Andrew having severe injuries after the car crash that killed his family and Rusty having to come to terms with physical deformity caused by his burns. Assuming that was the case, I originally chose the book as my Genre Challenge read, but this story didn’t really focus on the themes of characters with disabilities falling in love as I expected. So! As my intended genre challenge, this book totally missed the mark. That said, it does explore the emotional trauma Andrew goes through. He’s definitely got some issues and they undoubtedly plague him. Despite how imperfect his world is at the start of the book, he seems content with his manufactured lifestyle—he gets to punish himself for surviving and still feel kind of good about doing something good for his friends Trevor and Lexi. Not to mention his sort of delusional quest to keep “Death” at bay.
One thing that is interesting about the story is the inclusion of a mini graphic novel. The novel isn’t showing Andrew and his story line, but rather it’s the graphic novel Andrew is drawing and focuses on a man Andrew has named Patient F (think V for Vendetta). I guess its sort of “meta” because Patient F really just reimagines Andrew’s life if Andrew were an anti-superhero figure capable of avenging his family. Every couple of chapters, we get a snippet of the story of Patient F and it gets flavored by the interactions Andrew has with the people in the hospital—notably the priest who works in the on-site chapel. Patient F’s narrative reflects the shifts in Andrew’s perspective over the course of the novel pretty closely and the comic serves as a visual sort of epilogue that wraps up Andrew’s life story all neat and tidy. (Total side note: I was annoyed how the epilogue graphic novel shows teenage Andrew narrating the rest of his life and when Andrew “moves on” so to speak, he’s gone to “heaven” (or wherever) as teenage Andrew. What is this obsession with reinforcing the idea that your teenage years are your ideal years? Not unlike the ending of the Titanic movie how Rose dies and goes to “heaven” and not only is she her Titanic-aged self, but she’s with Jack, not the man she married and made a family with…/bitching)
I did have some big issues with the storytelling. For one thing, the author forces a pretty significant “suspend your disbelief” when it comes to how Andrew is able to have the existence he does. When he and his family were brought to the hospital after the car crash, Andrew somehow manages to just sneak away and spends the next several months at least actually living in the hospital. In point of fact, the author doesn’t clearly establish how long Andrew’s been living in the hospital. At first, I thought it was a couple years, but it may have been as short as several months. He stays in an abandoned section of a wing under construction, “borrows” stuff from the staff locker rooms, but still manages to spend hours on end visiting his friends in the Pediatrics section and volunteering in the ER and working in the cafeteria…and no one gets the slightest bit concerned until it suits the plot.
In general, I found the prose perfectly acceptable. The story is told in first-person perspective from Andrew’s POV. Given all that he’s endured and all that he has and continues to put himself through, I liked reading the sort of desperate measures Andrew feels he must take. Again, though, we’re called to suspend our disbelief at how causally he can apparently move through seemingly all parts of the hospital (ER, ICU, etc) unfettered. Another particularly frustrating aspect of the writing came from the get-go: given Andrew’s focus on this character Death, I was constantly wondering if this was metaphorical death in flowing robes with a scythe reaping souls in the hospital, or a nickname for a flesh-and-blood person. I was seriously leaning towards paranormal being for the first several chapters; that on-page vagueness left me wondering if maybe Andrew was actually a ghost himself and not a flesh-and-blood person.
The story is charged with drama. I appreciated how the relationships between Andrew and Trevor and Lexi shift as well as the relationship between Andrew and Rusty. Despite having to suspend my disbelief when Andrew has to interact with hospital staff, there were glimmers of reality at key moments—like when Andrew sneaks Trevor and Lexi to the roof to be teenagers and the two cancer patients pay the price the following day and the Pediatrics nurse finally starts acting like a professional and flipping out about Andrew having free reign. It’s not just Andrew who gets to hog all the drama, either. His cafeteria boss and Trevor get their own slice of the Issues Pie, which definitely helps round them out.
In summary, I’d say that if you are interested in gay YA novels in general or if you’re a fan of watching character work through emotional turmoil, this book wouldn’t go amiss.