Saturday, June 13, 2015

Invincible by Amy Reed

Seventeen year old Evie Whinsett was diagnosed with cancer a year ago - a small tumour in her left hip. Evie has Ewing's sarcoma, a type of cancer almost entirely restricted to teenagers. She had surgery to remove the tumour but then it became aggressive while she was in outpatient treatment, recieving rounds of chem every other three weeks. The soreness in her hip that existed after surgery felt different and two months ago doctors discovered the cancer had spread from her hip into her femur. Following radiation treatments, Evie suffered an accident while walking around Lake Merritt with her boyfriend, Will. Walking with a cane and in terrible pain, Evie collapsed as her left leg broke into five pieces.  Now she's back in Oakland Children's Hospital hospital struggling to cope with whatever the doctors find.

After going outside to catch some fresh air with her parents and sister Jenica they meet with Dr. Jacobs who tells her that the prognosis is not good. Dr. Jacobs tells her that the cancer has metastasized and is now in her bone marrow which is why her leg broke. He recommends that after her broken leg heals, she go on an even more aggressive round of chemo and radiation and that she have a bone marrow transplant. All this is too much for Evie who decides, to the shock of her parents, that she will stop treatment. Over her parent's objections, Evie tells them with only a four percent chance of remission, she's done. For Evie, " is time to die. It's time to let everyone off the hook, let Mom and Dad get on with their lives and stop wasting all their energy on the wrong daughter."

Evie tells her two best friends in the hospital, Stella who has leukemia and Caleb who has brain cancer, that she will be going home in a few days because her cancer is terminal.  Evie first met Stella eight months ago when she was returning for her third round of chemo. Stella with her black felt hat is her best friend in their cancer world. Outside of hospital that honour belongs to Kasey Wexler-Beene whom Evie has known since kindergarten.  Telling Kasey was the hardest because she had to deal with Kasey's emotional response. The person Evie does not know how to tell is her boyfriend, Will Johnson, who is on their high school football team and who has been by her side through everything.

Evie's discharge is delayed after Will, drops his laptop on her injured leg. One day Stella, with the help of Caleb, spirits Evie out of the hospital and into her boyfriend, Cole's van. With Evie strapped down in a wheelchair in the back of the van, the three of them drive into the hills where they can see the lights of Oakland, the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Stella gives Evie a CD of music which she tells Evie has music that is about questioning authority and "not believing blindly just because someone with power tells you something's true." She also introduces Evie to smoking pot. When Cole drops Evie and Stella off near the hospital which is in lock-down mode because they have gone missing. Nurse Moskowitz meets them and admonishes Evie for leaving and for taking the risk to Stella's health. "I don't understand how this became my fault, but I say sorry anyway. I look to Stella for some clue, but her eyes are glazed over and dim, like she used up every last ounce of strength she had in her for the trip..." Nurse Moskowitz realizes that Stella is running a high fever and tells Evie that with Stella being neutropenic (that is she has few white blood cells to fight off infection), she has no immune system.

The next day Stella visits Evie in a wheelchair and Evie realizes that despite Stella's strong personality, she appears very frail. Meanwhile Evie finds she feels stronger after her outing. "It's like last night changed something even deeper, like everything inside me has been turned upside down, or like the balance of the universe is off somehow..." However, Stella's visit ends with a terrible coughing fit and when Evie visits her the next day, she finds Stella hooked up to many machines and tubes. Stella tells Evie that her roommate has been moved down the hall which is an unspoken indication that Stella is probably dying.

Dr. Jacobs tells Evie's parents that she will be able to go home once her pain has stabilized but he wants to keep her a few more days to run tests. Inexplicably, Evie seems to be getting stronger and improving. For Evie this is shocking. "For so long, my life was on hold. Now my death is on hold, and it's just as irritating. " But while Evie is improving, Stella dies, leaving Evie unmoored and angry. Dr. Jacobs reveals that Evie's tests reveal that she is completely healthy - a miracle. Evie is discharged from hospital and sent home. But Evie's return to the land of the living is marred with anger and guilt. Cancer has changed her and she's no longer the person she was a year ago.


Invincible is a very melodramatic novel that tackles terminal cancer, drug addiction and the emotional fallout of being a cancer survivor.  From the day she is pronounced healthy, Evie is not happy as she struggles to discover her new identity. "I should feel something. Happy. Grateful. But I keep thinking about how the last thing Stella probably saw was a ceiling identical to this one, an empty expanse of flat, lifeless white..."

When she returns home from the hospital, Evie feels she is no longer "Cancer Girl" but she doesn't know who she is. Evie's pain over Stella is so overwhelming that she no longer loves the things she did before she got sick. "Maybe Will can make me feel better. Maybe he'll take me into his arms and squeeze some joy into me. But what I really want to do is get into bed and sleep for as long as it takes for me to feel like doing all the things I used to love doing. I want to sleep until I can forget that Stella's gone."  As her family and friends try to pick up their lives and relationships with Evie once again, she resists. "I want to agree with them, but something inside me says not so fast. I'm not the girl they remember. I'm not anyone they know." In a letter she writes to Stella, Evie wonders who she now is. "If I'm not Cancer Girl, who am I exactly?" Crutches Girl? Gimpy-Leg Girl?...Everyone thinks I'm still so fragile. Don't they realize I survived? Don't they realize how tough that makes me?"

Evie struggles because she feels she has changed and that her family and friends do not recognize this. She feels people only know how to deal with her as a sick person, especially her mother, whom she describes as a helicopter parent with "her propellers buzzing." Kasey and Will are her two closest friends but she does not know how to talk with them - " one know what to do with me, and I don't know what to do with them."

She begins abusing Norco a drug prescribed to her for pain in her hip. When Dr. Jacob tells her he wants her weaned off the Norco, Evie decides she needs to find out where her mother is hiding the pills. Soon she is taking large quantities of pills to deaden the emotional pain she feels. During this time Evie meets a complete stranger, Marcus Lyon, who is from a wealthy family. Evie likes Marcus because he doesn't know her past and therefore doesn't view her as fragile. Her relationship with Marcus is based on shared pain and smoking pot together. But Marcus has his own demons; he's a stoner, and he cuts himself to cope with the pain of his older brother's suicide.  However, not even her relationship with Marcus is able to stop Evie's self destructive behaviour. She alienates her parents, her boyfriend Will whom she dumps, and her best friend Kasey. Evie fails all her classes and she shows up at her prom stoned and drunk. Soon even Marcus begins to recognize that Evie is not well.

Reed does a good job of portraying Evie's decline into opiate addiction and binge drinking to numb the pain she is feeling. She becomes a truly despicable character that readers have a hard time sympathizing with. In contrast to Evie, are her parents, especially her mother, who seem at a loss as to how to deal with her. Only her father seems to understand what is going on, yet he leaves her to make her own choices, believing that she needs to want to be helped. By the time Evie's parents have clued in to what's happening, it's almost too late. It is this part of the story that is troubling because most parents would likely have intervened well before this point. The fact that Evie begins to fail school and cannot seem to relate to any of her friends and appears to have undergone a serious personality change would indicate that all is not well.

Reed has populated her story with many interesting characters. Stella Hsu, an Asian girl with "beautiful black hair,,,long and straight and perfect." is sassy and quite witty. Cole who is a girl, who dresses as a boy and is Stella's devoted boyfriend, is caring. Will Johnson and Kasey are the foils to Evie, representing what she once was, a good student, a faithful friend and a positive,caring person. Marcus, despite being the person who likes to get stoned with Evie and who introduces her to magic mushrooms, is someone who has suffered but seems to be surviving. He begins to recognize that Evie is in trouble and tries to change her perspective on what is happening. "You keep acting like your invincible, but life is falling apart. I can't stand watching you self-destruct. I love you too much. Nobody's invincible, not even you."  What we don't know is, is he too late? Although the advance descriptions of the novel suggest that Evie's problem will be dating a bad boy, Marcus is not the completely bad character he's made out to be. Marcus's problems simply exacerbate the ones Evie already has.

One of the reason's Reed is able to create realistic situations involving Evie and portray her self-destruction is that Reed herself did two stints in rehabilitation for drugs. She writes in an interview that "I didn't get high for fun like everyone else. I did it because I had to. It was the only way to keep myself from feeling all the horrible feelings that kept piling on the more I went in the wrong direction and the more I kept hurting myself. " Reed was both an alcoholic and a drug addict. After her second stint in rehab, Reed has remained clean. She's now a successful author who knows much about how life can sometimes spiral out of control.

Amy Reed is planning a second book, Unforgivable, which will be published in 2016.

Book Details:
Invincible by Amy Reed
New York: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers      2015
325 pp.

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