Hardcover, 244 pages
Expected publication: May 14th 2013 by Soho Teen
“I found out two things today. One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv.”
So begins the diary of 14-year-old Jenna Samuels, who is having a very bad eighth-grade year. Her single mother spends all day in bed. Dad vanished when she was eight. Her 16-year-old brother, Casey, tries to hold together what’s left of the family by working two after-school jobs— difficult, as he’s stoned all the time. To make matters worse, Jenna is sick. When she collapses one day, Casey tries to race her to the hospital in their beat-up Prius and crashes instead.
Jenna wakes up in the ER to find Casey beside her. Beatified. Literally. The flab and zits? Gone. Before long, Jenna figures out that Casey didn’t survive the accident at all. He’s an “A-word.” (She can’t bring herself to utter the truth.) Soon they discover that Jenna isn’t just dying: she’s being poisoned. And Casey has been sent back to help solve the mystery that not only holds the key to her survival, but also to their mother’s mysterious depression and father’s disappearance.
The synopsis for this book is pretty convincing and I was sold as soon as I read it. We don’t read as much about brothers and sisters as we should or perhaps I should, possibly because I have two older brothers and I’ve lived the experience in real life and do not seek to repeat it in fictional life. Big brothers are often gross, coarse and mean. They are also unexpectedly sweet and caring, protective and warm. They scare away prospective boyfriends with a glower and have the weirdest tastes in music and movies. I have some questionable music tastes thanks to my brothers.
What makes The Sweet Dead Life so sweet is the relationship between Jenna and Casey. They are in a terrible situation where the adults of their lives have checked out leaving them to fend for themselves. Their father possibly pulled a runner and their mother seems to be sinking further and further into depression. Oh and Jenna is on her way to dying. She’s almost there when Casey crashes the car on their way to the hospital and the game changes dramatically.
Despite the presence of a feathered human being (not a werebird), there is very little holiness present in the novel. It is funny, poignant and disarmingly real. Jenna’s familial situation is narrated without romanticizing anything. From the mold growing in her mother’s bathroom to her brother’s uh…recreational activities under his blanket, Jenna narrates everything in an authentic fourteen year old voice. When her life takes a turn for the weird, she manages to convey disbelief without going overboard and her gradual acceptance of the A-word is believable.
The weakest part of the novel is the so called mystery and the resolution of it. While it is not terribly done, it could have been stronger. I wish the mystery portions of the novel had been better woven into the rest of the narrative. However, I appreciated that the resolution is not neat and tidy. There is a sense of time having past and that some irretrievable losses have occurred. I liked that the ending is ambiguous in certain details and that though there is an emotional payoff, it is not in your face and explicit.
I really liked this one, you guys. I recommend it.