17-year-old Austin has one last chance to say and do the things he’s always wanted to do before he dies. He’s got terminal cancer, and he wants to go out on his own terms, so he knows this is one of the last weekends he’ll be able to hold himself together enough to go see the people he needs to see. Along with best friend/crush Kaylee, he meets up with a host of people from his life — both past and present — to tell them what he thinks about them and what he thinks they should do to seize the most out of their own lives.
Megan Bostic’s debut Never Eighteen is a short book, ringing in at about 200 pages, and it’s fast-paced. I’m a slower reader and I got through it in about two hours. It starts out immediately — there’s not really an introduction to Austin or why he asks Kaylee to take him around Tacoma and on to Seattle, but as readers, we have an idea why. So does Kaylee, with whom Austin spends a long time, but neither of them are blatant in why they’re doing what they’re doing.
We’re on this trip with Austin and Kaylee as readers, and we’re introduced to a host of people almost immediately. Austin goes into their lives, tells them what he needs to tell them, and then he exits, at peace with what he’s done. The problem here is that as readers, we have no idea how deep or important these connections to Austin are. These characters are sorely underdeveloped; we only get the apology or advice-giving end via Austin as it happens. Likewise, all of these characters we meet have very heavy problems in their lives. One girl is the victim of an abusive boyfriend (Austin tells her to get out of the relationship because she’s worth more than that — and while that’s one of the moments in the book you can’t help argue with, there’s also no context for why or how or any reason why the reader should believe Austin’s assessment of the situation in the scant few pages it runs); one boy he meets is gay but has been hiding it from everyone; one of the people is the mother of his dead best friend; and then there is Austin’s father, from whom we learn that the reason he and Austin’s mother broke up was because his mother cheated on him (and that is explained away by the father as being an okay thing because Austin’s grandmother meddled in their relationship too much) and Austin’s grandmother, who Austin begs to have a relationship again with his mother since she’ll be lonely soon. This is only the start of the cast of people involved in the story.
While I think the idea of the book is one that’s intriguing and engaging, the execution didn’t work. Aside from the host of problem-laden, underdeveloped characters, there’s also the fact that Austin himself isn’t all that likable. I’m a big fan of unlikable characters, but the reason Austin didn’t work for me was because he’s also underdeveloped. He’s a cancer kid and that’s about it. We learn through the course of his conversations with other people that he’s caring and we learn he has had a long-time crush on Kaylee. But really, what he’s doing here in offering people advice into how to live their lives didn’t work for me. I don’t know enough about him to know how much he cares vs how much he wants people to appreciate their lives because he can’t have any more of his. Additionally — and this is spoiler material, so skip on down to the next paragraph if you don’t want it — it’s Austin who makes the decision to not go through another round of chemo because he’s ready to die. After telling other people to live their lives to the fullest and after coming off as sort of a hero-type in the story, he gives himself up. I get it, and Austin’s explanation for it makes sense, but this was the moment I decided I didn’t actually know anything about Austin himself other than his dying wish was to be a hero to everyone else. It made me dislike him because he felt disingenuous. Worse, though, it made me feel guilty for disliking him because he’s dying of cancer.
I have a very hard time with books about cancer or other body-ravaging diseases because there is an unfair onus placed upon the reader. Whereas books about terrible events become circumstantial (car crashes happen because of something else, mental illness is part nature and part nurture, drugs and alcohol happen because of choices made, etc.), books about things like cancer are not. That’s part of why they’re high emotion books. The problem is that readers come to the book with this baggage already. They come with awareness that someone in the book is quite possibly going to die because of something over which they can exert no control. There is an automatic sympathy for a character, whether or not that’s fair. In Never Eighteen, I felt immense guilt for not liking Austin because he has cancer. It made me as a reader feel like a bad person, which in turn made me even more frustrated as a reader. Austin should have been able to stand on his own as a character, whether or not he was going to die or live, and I don’t feel like he does.
I’m glad that Austin had the chance to connect with Kaylee in a way that meant a lot to him and to her, but I didn’t find Kaylee an interesting character, either. She was an accessory to Austin’s trip quite literally; he needed a ride, and she was there to offer it. It wasn’t until the very end of the book I got why she was so important to him, and it felt too late.
What the lack of development did was distance me from the emotional impact this story could have had. While it could easily be explained as the trip Austin would have wanted because he himself needs that emotional distance to really achieve what he wants to achieve in his final days, it leaves the readers out of the story. The end of the book, which should have elicited certain feelings from me, had me more interested in skimming than investing. I felt frustrated because of how little I really knew about Austin and about how little I knew about his real feelings for Kaylee. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; it was that I knew what was coming and being so removed from the story and characters that it felt like something happening to a complete stranger, rather than someone I’d come to know.
Despite all of the issues I had with the book, this one will have definite reader appeal. It’s fast paced, the writing is serviceable, and the idea of getting the chance to have a final word with everyone you want a final moment with is a unique twist on the genre. This one will have particular appeal to reluctant readers, too. I’m demanding of characters, and reluctant readers are, too, but they’re more likely to overlook the challenges I had in exchange for story — and there’s a story here, no doubt. While reading this book, I couldn’t help but be somewhat reminded of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why — they’re not the same topically, but the idea of having one word with people who have had an impact on your life is the same. Except in Never Eighteen, Austin is alive and getting the chance. I can see fans of Asher’s book interested in Bostic’s title, as will fans of stories about disease (though it plays a very little role in the book, other than being the catalyst to every other event).
Review copy received from the publisher. Never Eighteen is available now.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).