A moving and inspirational novel that is surprisingly entertaining given the subject matter. 5 stars!
It’s been a year since the fire that took the lives of both Ava’s parents and her cousin, Sara. Ava survived but with sixty percent burns that claimed her hand, ear, eyebrows, hair and most of her face. She’s unrecognisable, even to herself. Now sixteen, Ava is fed up of being different – she’s sick of the stares, the inappropriate comments, and of being described as “inspirational”. She longs to be normal but that’s no longer possible: the best she can hope to find is a “new normal”. Despite her reservations, a new start at a new school and new friends might be just what she needs. However, as Ava is about to discover, everyone has scars. Some are just easier to see.
This might sound like a depressing book. It is, however, the exact opposite. This is largely because of Ava’s appealing first-person voice which grips the reader from this impressive opening paragraph:
“One year after the fire, my doctor removes my mask and tells me to get a life. He doesn’t use those exact words, of course, because he’s paid to flash around lots of medical-degree terms like reintegration and isolation, but basically, the Committee on Ava’s Life had a big meeting and decided I have wallowed long enough. My postburn pit party is over.”
From the outset, Ava is more than her scars and, despite everything she’s been through, she’s very much a typical teenager. I especially enjoyed reading about her budding crush on theatre-geek, Asad, and I winced more than once as this storyline unfolded. I was also surprised how many times I smiled, or even laughed out loud, as I read the book. In particular, I loved the way Ava and her new friend, Piper, repeatedly question whether they’re normal teenagers. For example, when they attend their first party together, Ava asks “Are we normal teenagers yet?” and Piper responds: “Let’s see… standing awkwardly against a wall at a party. We’re on our way!”
Ava is well-rounded and easy to understand because we’re in her viewpoint. Piper, in contrast, is seen only through Ava’s eyes and we, therefore, know only what Piper is willing for Ava to know. This leaves many questions unanswered for much of the book, providing a strong motivation to keep reading. Indeed, it takes almost the entire book to understand where Piper is coming from but this is, perhaps, one of the things that makes this such a satisfying read.
While, as a Young Adult novel, the focus is quite rightly on our teen protagonists, I was also impressed by the characterisation of Ava’s Aunt and Uncle who are supporting Ava whilst simultaneously grieving for the daughter they lost in the fire. The section where Ava finally begins to embrace them, understanding what they have been through and the strength of their commitment to her, is brought a rare tear to my eye.
While probably not intended by the author, as a British reader, the book also made me truly appreciation our National Health Service (and pray it will remain in its current form). Set in the United States, the book inevitably describes the financial pressures that the fire places on Ava’s family, forcing her Aunt to take a job and to sell her dead daughter’s most treasured possessions to pay the medical bills.
If you enjoyed this, you should definitely read the now classic The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Alternatively, if you’re looking for something published more recently, I’d strongly recommend Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Laconis.
Publication Date: October 2019
Publisher: Simon and Schuster