Friday, December 27, 2013

Broken by C.J. Lyons

At first this novel appears to be about a girl who has a serious health problem, however, as the story progresses readers will soon realize that there is more going on in Scarlet Killian's life than just her illness. Something sinister and deadly. The author weaves together several story lines, all with Scarlet at their center.

Fifteen year old Scarlet is attempting her first week at school - ever. She has lived most of her life in hospital, having been diagnosed with an untreatable heart condition that could cause her to suddenly drop dead. Despite the doctors not completely understanding her symptoms, Scarlet has been diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome which is a defect in the calcium pumps that control heart rhythm.

As a result, carries an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) she calls "Phil"  with her everywhere. Too ill to attend school, Scarlet has been home-schooled by her mother, who is a nurse. For Scarlet, this attempt at high school is her one and only chance to live a normal life. She wants a future that doesn't consist of staying at home being constantly monitored by her mother who feeds her pureed foods and vitamin pills as supplements.

But fitting in at school is going to be alot harder than she ever imagined. On her first day at Smithfield High, Scarlet with her AED in tow, manages to attract the attention of two boys; Mitch Kowalski, a member of the football team who immediately sets his sights on Scarlet as a target for his bullying and Jordan Summers who is her lockermate. When Scarlet meets Jordan, she finds herself attracted to him, causing her face to flush and her heart to pound. Scarlet's mom, who works as a nurse at the school,  insists on checking her over and then forcing her to take her vitamins. But Scarlet doesn't take the vitamins because they make her feel flushed and dizzy. Scarlet has discovered through her online searches, that her vitamins high niacin content are probably making her feel this way making her suspicious of the pills.

On her first day, Scarlet meets her peer support group that includes Nessa Woodring and Celina Price with Jordan as their peer mentor. Scarlet's first class is Grade 10 English taught by Mrs Gentry. Gentry has the class studying Tennessee William's, Glass Menagerie. To study further the theme of unreliable memory in the play, Gentry asks her students to keep a memory journal. During class she asks her students to try to recall their first memory and Scarlet realizes that she has few memories; Scarlet can remember books she's read but few details from her childhood.

In flashback, Scarlet does remember when she was thirteen - the year of "Nothing Good" as she terms it. It was during this year that Scarlet became suspicious that her stepmom was not only causing her symptoms but that she suspected she was trying to kill her too. Doctors had no explanation for Scarlet's symptoms and they decided to stop all her medication. This gave Scarlet the idea that maybe her mother was responsible for her illness. But Scarlet ended up back in hospital and almost died - and her idea that her stepmom was responsible seemed ridiculous.

When Scarlet has to leave school suddenly due to an incident involving Mitch who is intent on getting revenge for Scarlet standing up to him, Anthony (Tony) Carrera, a boy in her biology class stops by her home later on to return her textbook and notes. Anthony has been assigned to be Scarlet's partner in a bio project which is due the following Monday. Tony tells her their project is to trace back the medical family history and identify any possible genetic traits and analyze them. So Tony and Scarlet decide to trace back her condition as it is a genetic one.

Although Scarlet is initially skeptical of Tony's motives for partnering with her, she feels attracted to him. Tony is not intimidated by Scarlet's controlling stepmother, something that she also finds endearing. Tony seems to like her and doesn't look at her like she's a "problem patient or a diagnostic dilemma or a freak." Instead he looks at her like she's "the only thing in the whole wide world."

When Scarlet asks her stepmom to download her medical records on the computer, she refuses, telling Scarlet that she's not ready for the information in her medical records. So Scarlet decides to sneak the records from the USB key on her stepmom's keychain onto the home computer. Then as Scarlet begins to peruse those records she makes a startling discovery that she had a twin brother who died very young. The fact that Scarlet's father has never spoken about this troubles her.

In an apparent turnabout, the next day Scarlet's stepmom gives her a paper copy of her medical files, which Scarlet turns over to Tony for their project. Meanwhile at school, Scarlet sees her mother becoming overly involved in some of the students personal lives, misunderstanding situations and causing problems. Tony tells Scarlet that he wasn't able to locate the results of her genetic tests in the medical files that came from her mother. But when Tony begins to question Scarlet about the pills she's been taking, Scarlet begins to realize that something is terribly wrong. A crisis at school suddenly brings everything to a shocking climax, revealing the truth about Scarlet's illness and her stepmother's actions.

Broken is an interesting novel but there are some weak plot points; the biology project seems too advanced for Grade 10 and it's difficult to understand how Scarlet's stepmom could be a full time nurse at a high school and also homeschool her. The entire bullying situation Scarlet encounters at school seems over the top and unrealistic. Situations in the novel, which takes place over the span of five days, from Monday to Friday, seem to escalate quickly - in a matter of hours - making the ending seem hurried and contrived.

Because of the short timeline for the story, Lyon's spends little time truly developing the characters but the reader does get a good sense of who the main characters really are. Scarlet's manipulative and intense stepmother is creepy especially when contrasted with her kindly but absent father. Scarlet is obviously a good daughter who is beginning to question what is happening in her life and who wants more from life than what she has. This turns out to be her saving grace.

C.J. Lyons has chosen an interesting subject upon which to base a novel. The author who is a pediatrician, has seen cases of Munchausen by proxy syndrome and although it is considered rare, Lyon's believes it is more prevalent than reported. Overall, this was an engaging novel that deals with themes of honesty, betrayal, trust and friendship.

Book Details:
Broken by C.J. Lyons
Naperville, Illinois:  Sourcebooks Fire     2013
325 pp.

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