After enjoying Nicola Yoon’s sophomore novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, so much, I decided I had to go back and relive the utter delight that was her debut, Everything, Everything, which I first read a couple years ago. Thankfully, the book is every bit as sweet and excruciating as I remembered.
The premise is simple. Maddy, diagnosed at only months old with SCIDs (“bubble boy syndrome”) lives her entire life inside her hermetically sealed house, seeing only her mother and nurse. That is, until the black-clad doofus, Olly, moves in next door and messages, mimes, and charms Maddy through the window into a long-distance relationship between two teenagers only feet apart.
Maddy’s story is told mostly through a series of miro-chapters, sections sometimes as short as a paragraph that take us into Maddy’s world in a unique, varied way. We see snippets of her chats with Ollie, her medical records, her online book reviews as the relationship develops and Maddy becomes, for the first time, unable to accept that she will never experience the world outside her home.
I find Maddy and Ollie to be the perfect kind of dorky while still being kind, interesting young people that I’m happy to root for as romantic heroes. Maddy is bright and funny while always feeling real—never too perfect or self-aware.
While the book stops short of the kind of broader themes that The Sun Is Also a Star reaches for, it is a beautiful coming-of-age tale about love, risk, and the shortness of life.
Beware – spoilers ahead!
I’ve heard from lots of readers who reacted very negatively to the twist at the end or felt that the novel’s messages are ableist. I do think I understand where these critics are coming from, and I agree that the way the story progresses undermines what could be a powerful story of living with physical limitations.
However, I think that the twist, while it keeps Everything, Everything from truly being a story of disability, also keeps it from being a troubling parable about why chronic disease is unbearable.
I think it’s important to remember that what Maddy is experiencing (and rebelling against) isn’t just disability, it’s also abuse—an emotional and mental abuse at the hands of a parent that extends far beyond a single lie. She isn’t just rebelling against her believed disease but against her mother’s refusal to allow Maddy to process her situation and reconcile her limits with her adolescent desires in a healthy way.
Moreover, I’ve always seen this story as having a pretty dark edge. It’s easy to focus on the teenage romping in the ocean and not realize that, in taking her trip to Hawaii, Maddy is committing slow suicide by neglect. Her letter to her mother acknowledges that she may never see her again, even though the planned trip is only a couple of days.