Author: Stacie Ramey
Publication date: January 1, 2020
Genre: young adult contemporary, romance
My rating: 4/5 stars
A timely narrative about disability, sense of self, and first love, It’s My Life deftly navigates the difficulties–physical, emotional, and social–that accompany serious disability, through the eyes of a smart, likable, and relatable narrator. Though it does get a bit cheesy and/or implausible at times, the story itself is an important one, specifically targeting the younger end of the YA spectrum with a solid message of hope.
So, quick plot rundown: Jenna is a high school student (junior, I think?) with spastic cerebral palsy. A lifetime of unsuccessful treatments has never been able to keep her down, until she learns that her condition was caused by medical malfeasance. Suddenly, she is deflated, dropping her AP courses to enroll in regular ones and growing increasingly irritated with her parents for never telling her and never allowing her a say in her own treatment. When Julian–an old childhood friend who moved away, and also the boy she has totally had a crush on for ages–moves back into town, Jenna is smitten all over again…but she is afraid to let him know about her feelings, for fear he will judge her for her condition. So she starts anonymously texting him. At first she just helps him with homework–she’s a bookworm with a knack for English class material, he has dyslexia and has always struggled with literature–but the two begin to bond on a deeper level as well. And so begins the problem: can she overcome her own insecurity to tell him who she really is?
This is the second book I’ve read this year about a character with cerebral palsy (the first being A Curse So Dark and Lonely), and in terms of awareness about the condition and how serious it can be, this one did a far more thorough job. Of course, with such a wide variety of symptom manifestations, this is not a criticism of the other book; rather, it is a compliment of this one. (Note: while this isn’t an OwnVoices story, the author noted at the end of the book that she is a speech-language pathologist who works with a lot of CP patients, and as far as I can tell, she has done a solid job of research. If there are any OwnVoices reviewers out there who disagree with that, please let me know and I’ll edit that last part accordingly.) We see all the pains Jenna deals with on a regular basis: repeated hospital visits that put her behind in class, crutches and a wheelchair that impair her mobility, unexpected spasms that cause additional injuries to her, an inability to go out in the cold without extra layers because her body does not warm up easily, and so on. The condition is an essential and omnipresent part of who she is.
And yet–and this is the important part–it doesn’t overwhelm her identity, either. She is a multifaceted character and though I’m sure there are going to be people who complain about her being “too immature,” she feels like a real high school student, with a wide range of interests and emotions that permeate both her narration and her conversations. She loves to learn, sneaking online access to her friend’s AP Psych textbook even after she had dropped the class, just to keep seeing the material. She enjoys hockey, musicals, Panic! at the Disco, and Disney movies. She believes in magic and the Jewish concept of there always being 36 saints on Earth. She cares deeply about her family and is super close with her siblings. Like so many teenage girls, she has a crush on a boy. Like so many teenage girls, she is also deeply insecure about herself.
And here’s one of the most interesting elements of the book: one of the ways Jenna deals with this insecurity is through imagining herself as having a sort of alter-ego named Jennifer. The key difference between herself and Jennifer is not just that Jennifer is more confident; it’s that Jennifer doesn’t have cerebral palsy. This leads to Jennifer having a thriving social life, an easy time talking to boys like Julian, and an easy time graduating at the top of her class. Whenever Jenna’s life gets difficult–an embarrassing situation, being under anesthesia before a difficult surgery–she slips into a sort of daydream where she imagines herself as somebody who doesn’t have to live with the physical constraints she has grown accustomed to. It is a striking narrative device, a deeper sort of wishful thinking that highlights just how many ways Jenna’s condition has affected her well-being.
While Jenna’s story is the center of this novel, I would be remiss if I did not talk about some of its other strengths. Her relationship with Julian feels genuine, not just an “oh you’re cute let’s date” kind of deal, but something way more emotional, rooted in shared history and shared opinions and a whole lot of trust. It was nice to see a cute high school romance that didn’t have to deal with all sorts of sabotage or cheating or jealousy.
Side note, while we’re on the topic of romance: remember how I mentioned earlier that this book skews toward the younger side of YA? Here’s a nice twist: there’s nothing about sex, not even any making out, not even a thought or a daydream, just things about kissing and slow-dancing. No drugs, and just one brief scene with underage drinking–not getting hammered, just a few sips of a spiked bottle of Coke. And there’s not much (if any) profanity, either, meaning this is a book that parents can really feel comfortable giving to their younger teens.
But back to other nice side details. Jenna has a lot of really healthy relationships in this book. Her whole family is supportive of her (with the exception of the whole parents-keeping-secrets-and-not-giving-her-a-say-in-her-treatment piece), and they all do their best to take care of her, in ways ranging from the large/obvious–hospital visits, helping her in and out of the car, and so on–to the small and sweet. Heck, Jenna’s sister Rena decorates her wheelchair on a regular basis. How’s that for sisterhood? Also, no matter what goes on in Jenna’s life, her best friend Ben (who, incidentally, is casually gay) is by her side with encouragement and assistance and advice, and seriously I just like seeing a great friendship in a book that doesn’t have a random falling-out over stupid things like miscommunication.
But, of course, there are flaws. There’s a major side plot with Jenna trying to file for medical independence from her parents, essentially barring them from making decisions about her treatment. Everything about that plot thread was kind of strange, from the fact that Jenna’s uncle was literally acting as her lawyer against her parents to the bizarre way in which the question is finally resolved. In fact, the whole reason that that particular conflict resolves the way it does–which I won’t go into, because spoilers–was just weird and came totally out of left field. And though, for the most part, I thought Jenna was an excellent depiction of a truly typical teenager, rather than the ultra-mature teens we see in a lot of YA these days, there were still some moments where things in her life felt like scenes out of a cheesy teen movie, rather than a plausible story. That said, she does end up maturing substantially over the course of the story, which helps negate that flaw somewhat.
Basically, this is a book that is certainly worth a read, primarily for its representation and for its stellar protagonist. Though the book itself is a very quick read, Jenna’s story is simultaneously cute and memorable.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: ableist language (from a truly terrible person, so it is strongly condemned by all the other characters)
Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!