Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Forever Changes by Brendan Halpin

While reading this book, I couldn't help but have flashbacks to middle school, when I was obsessed with Lurlene McDaniel books. That's not to say that McDaniel's books and Forever Changes actually have anything in common - they're really quite different, except for starring teenagers with terminal illnesses - but I think the worry was always there in the back of my mind that at any moment this well written book would descend into narm.

Thankfully, it didn't.

Brianna is a senior in high school with cystic fibrosis. After having watched another friend with cystic fibrosis die recently, Brianna is probably the only person in her AP calculus class that isn't obsessing over getting college credit for the course. She loves math, and is incredibly good at it - so good her father keeps pressuring her to apply to MIT - but Brianna knows there's a very real possibility that she won't live to get her high school diploma, let alone a college degree.

But she also tries not to focus too much on her own mortality. She is an "illness mentor" to Ashley, a freshman who also has cystic fibrosis and looks up to Brianna to help her with everything from giving her the confidence to audition for the school play to coping with her parents' impending divorce, and good illness mentors keep the mentee's spirits up, not bring them down with thoughts of death. Then there are Brianna's best friends, Melissa and Stephanie, who provide Brianna with a daily dose of Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts (seriously, did Dunkin' Donuts sponsor the book? Because there were lots of Munchkins eaten during this book) and constantly need Brianna's help to shepherd them through their math homework.

Over the course of her senior year, Brianna also develops special friendships with Adam, a fellow AP Calculus student who introduces Brianna to the psychedelic music of Love, a rock band their calculus teacher may or may not have been part of back in the day, and Mr. Eccles, the aforementioned calculus teacher who ponders the infinite and mortality with Brianna in the face of his own health problems.

While it is a bit of a cliche, with encouragement from her friends and her father, Brianna ultimately applies to MIT, even though she still has reservations not only about her chances of getting in, but her chances of seeing graduation day. And on top of the concerns over her MIT application and increasing amount of homework, plus helping her dad with the bookkeeping for his new side business of customizing motorcycles, Brianna can feel herself slowly getting sicker.

My biggest gripe with this book is that I feel it's going to feel incredibly dated in a few years. Will Not Another Teen Movie and Kyra Sedgewick on The Closer be as recognizable in five years as they are today? (Of course the reference to Jack Sparrow is a timeless inclusion ;-) Not every book has to be written with longevity in mind, perhaps, but some of these pop culture references felt rather forced.

What surprised me in how much I liked it was all of the math that was in the book. Brianna is constantly trying to figure out the force, speed or volume of everyday activities and items in her life. While she never seems to be able to figure them out exactly, it was a different way (for me) to look at math. And then Mr. Eccles actually had the ability to make math sound vaguely interesting. Not that I would have wanted to be in his class (I failed Advanced Algebra twice before finally passing it, and imaginary numbers ticked me off - the whole point of math is supposed to be that it's concrete, right?), but he certainly put a philosophic bent on calculus.

Additionally, let me reassure you that despite my earlier reference to Lurlene McDaniel, her books and this one really have nothing in common. Brianna has a lot of spunk to her, and while she does reference having sex as one of the things that was on her "Things to do before I die" list, she certainly isn't obsessed with having a boyfriend and being a perfect angel. She talks back to her dad, goes out to parties, and usually has a fairly pragmatic view of her death - rarely does she descend into self pity.

I also have to say, that while I saw the ending coming, and parts of it seemed a little too pat and perfect, it also had me with tears in my eyes while I was on my break at work.
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