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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

After Ever After: Jeffrey Alper Survived Cancer, But Can He Make It Out of 8th Grade Alive?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Have you ever fallen in love with a book only to discover that there's one little thing about it you can't stand? That's how I feel about Jordan Sonnenblick's new novel, After Ever After. I was smitten with the book after about, oh, two sentences. The story really does have it all - an original premise, lively characters, an unexpected romance, underdogs overcoming their challenges, etc. All the good stuff. I loved it. Except for the ending. I hate spoilers, so I'm not going to go into details, but let's just say, the book did not finish up the way I wanted it to. Dang it.

Meet Eighth Grader Jeffrey Alper, also known as: The Boy Who Had Cancer, Official Town Cause, and Captain Spedling. Even though he's no longer the poster boy for leukemia, Jeffrey's still feeling the effects of his disease - cancer drugs have left him with a limp and a chemical-soaked brain that makes him a little spacey. At least he's not the only one who's "special." Tad Ibsen, Jeffrey's best friend, fought his own battle against cancer. Now, it's the Cancer Twins against the world. Or the school. Or just the 8th Grade. Actually, Tad's the one with the big mouth - all Jeffrey wants to do is graduate from junior high.

Jeffrey's not looking forward to another year of struggling with classes, trying to keep Tad from alienating the entire student body, and dealing with parents who never seem to know quite what to do with him. It would be easier if his big brother was around to talk to, but no, Steven's off in Africa banging on drums and "finding himself." Things start to look up - way up - when Jeffrey meets Lindsey Abraham. Not only is the new girl gorgeous, but she's the only one in the school who doesn't know every detail of Jeffrey's sordid, cancerous past. And - miracle of miracles - Lindsey seems to like him. Like, like him like him. Maybe the year won't be so bad after all.

Then, comes the big news: Every Eighth Grader is required to pass an intense standardized test in order to progress to high school. Even with the extra test-taking time alloted to "developmentally delayed" kids like Jeffrey, there's no way he can pass an exam like this. But, what's the alternative? Letting high school bullies mess with snarky, wheelchair-bound Tad? Watching older guys flirt with Lindsey? It's a hopeless cause, but Jeffrey has to try.

Suddenly, making it out of 8th Grade alive is more difficult than beating leukemia, especially when Tad's acting weird, Lindsey might be breaking up with him, Steven's still not around, and the whole school seems to be in on some big secret that no one's telling Jeffrey. Life was tough enough when he was warring with leukemia, but 8th Grade is becoming downright impossible.

I know you're thinking, "You said this story was original. What's so fresh about cancer?" Nothing, right? It's the oldest tear-jerking device in the book. Except when it's explored in new ways. I don't know about you, but I've never encountered a book about teenage boys grappling with the after effects of their disease. And I've certainly never seen it done without bitterness and sentimentality. Until now. Sonnenblick uses a light, funny touch to make his scenes subtly poignant. One thing shines through, the one thing that matters most: heart. A whole lotta heart.

The ending is an issue, though. Everything else about the book is so different, so original, that the finale disappointed me with its predictability. If I hadn't been reading the book in public, I probably would have yelled, "Don't do it! Don't you dare!" Alas, I didn't, and he did. And the book's "grade" dropped from an A to a B. What can I say, Sonnenblick? School's rough. Just ask Jeffrey Alper.

(Readalikes: I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and light sexual innuendo; Since the main characters are in 8th Grade, I consider this a middle grade novel. However, it's probably most appropriate for kids 12 and over.

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I just found your blog through the comment you left on my site. It's really great! Love your reviews!


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