Thirteen-year-old Sarah's mother, a lively, successful lawyer, discovers she has metastatic cancer. The story covers the months between her diagnosis and death. Sarah's dad is a minor character; there is little portrayal of his relationship with the mother, or with Sarah, except when he's announcing bad news. Sarah finds herself reacting in unexpected ways--feeling hateful, angry, detached, paralyzed, inclined to deny the whole thing.

The supporting character is Sarah's friend, Robin, whose mother has agoraphobia, never goes anywhere, knows few people, and rarely allows Robin to invite Sarah over. Sarah comes to understand this problem for the first time when her own mother's illness opens channels of communication between the girls.

The moment of the mother's death is described briefly but vividly: "Mom suddenly lifted both hands, pressed them hard against her forehead. She looked at me once, her eyes huge, and for an instant, it was as if she were pleading with me." The mystery of what her mother might have wanted in that final moment haunts Sarah--a reminder that death leaves questions with no answers. As the story ends, Sarah rereads a note from her mother which concludes, "'Don't let anybody tell you differently. What we're going through stinks. It just plain stinks." The novel ends with this emotional truth, making little attempt to soften it by speculation about afterlife.


This novel abbreviates emotional and factual development, but does cut to the heart of the issues. In a way that rings true, it represents Sarah's anger, grief, bouts of odd indifference or need to distance, and in the final chapter her slow recovery and the lingering bafflement of grief. Her point of view is represented convincingly and compassionately.

The novel's weakness is the relative absence of reference to the adults' own struggle. Though this may accurately represent adolescent unawareness of adult perspective, it seems to leave a vacuum. The father's character in particular remains oddly underdeveloped, and his suffering only faintly acknowledged. Nevertheless, the book is compelling in its own terms, and a valuable resource for young people who face or have faced the loss of a parent. Such stories may, among other things, help kids cope with conflicting, anomalous feelings, especially guilt over their own survival strategies.


Harcourt, Brace

Place Published

New York