Friday, August 13, 2010
The Girl Next Door
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9838360]
Sam and Jesse have been best friends since they bumped strollers in the elevator of their building. They've grown up doing everything together, and though Sam has been in love with Jesse since that fateful day when they were two, Jesse sees Sam as the girl next door, not girlfriend material. All that changes when Jesse gets sick. He cuts everyone out of his life except Sam. Suddenly, without the distraction of the rest of the world, he sees her for what she's always been: perfect for him. But will Sam ever believe that he's really in love with her and this isn't just a romance of convenience? And will that even matter if Jesse never gets better?
When I was in junior high, I was really into books where someone dies. Kids with cancer, car accidents, loving but ancient grandparents; these were my books. I don't know why, but I loved sad books. Girl Next Door is the more grown-up version of those books. Death is more than a possible ending for this book; it is practically the setting and a main character as well. Jesse and his mother are, of course, consumed by Jesse's sickness, but so is their housekeeper Maria, Sam, and Sam's mother and little brother. Sam especially. She starts to fail out of school, she moves into Jesse's room, and she lets everything that is not Jesse fall to the wayside. She desperately wants Jesse to live, but she knows that it's very possible that she has years and years to catch up on things like high school while she may only have months (if she's lucky) to spend time with Jesse.
It is unbearably sad.
More sad than the situation itself is the way that Sam deals with it. She truly becomes a shell of herself, her sole purpose to make Jesse as happy and as comfortable as possible. The prime example of this, and one that causes more than a few problems for both Jess and Sam, is that she crawls into bed with him based on nothing more than her lifelong crush and Jesse's wish to not die a virgin. He doesn't fall in love with her until afterward. With that kind of a set-up, of course she doubts Jesse's feelings for her! She's available and willing to put out (and make sandwiches and clean up when he pukes them up later) all the time. Even though her doubts linger for a whole lot of the book, Sam never backs up, sets boundaries, or ASKS Jesse about his feelings for her. She just clings to him all the more. When her mother finally notices that Sam has gone to the bad place over Jesse and over Jesse's illness and makes Sam see a therapist, Sam won't go without Jesse.
Sam's so desperate throughout the whole book, not only to have Jesse live but to be Jesse's whole life the way he has become hers. To be honest, it made me uncomfortable. I wanted for someone, her mom, her therapist, Jesse, to make Sam see that she needed to be her own person in order to survive when Jesse may not. They all tried, but it never really sunk in. Even when things start to get a little bit better, Sam is still all about Jesse. Their relationship becomes more healthy than it is in the beginning, but Sam is never just Sam. All about the ending spoiler: I think if the book allowed us to see Sam after Jesse's death and see her grow from this experience a bit, it wouldn't be so bad. Even on his deathbed, Jesse is trying to explain to Sam that she needs to go on and she is quoting the "Evermore" lines from a poem he wrote to her. I know that the end is peaceful, but as it is written, I have no faith that Sam will be able to pull herself out of her grief and do all the things she promised Jesse that she would: finish high school, go to college, fall in love again.
Still, I don't know that teen readers will have the qualms about Sam that I do, and even with my worry for Sam and discomfort over the way she was portrayed, I was totally sucked into this story. I cried. And I would have eaten this book up when I was in junior high/early high school. It is a really good sad story.
Book source: Review copy from publisher