All These Lives by Sarah Wylie

Dani and Jena are fraternal twins, and they spent most of their lives pretty close to one another. When Jena is diagnosed with cancer, her life is turned upside down, right along with Dani’s. Dani finds it unfair her sister has to suffer with endless rounds of chemotherapy, with losing her sense of self, with the possibility of losing her life all together. See, Dani feels like she’s been granted 9 lives, given that she herself has survived near-death experiences more than once. It’s unfair — beyond unfair — her sisters one life might end so soon before she’s had the chance to live it.

So Dani makes it her mission to die so her sister doesn’t have to suffer.

All These Lives by Sarah Wylie is the kind of cancer novel I appreciate because this isn’t a book about cancer as a disease. It’s not a novel about the things cancer does to a body. It’s a novel instead about how cancer can be a means for people to find a reason to live and to survive.

Dani’s a sarcastic narrator, and she’s hurting deeply because of her sister’s illness. At times it feels like she may be a tiny bit envious of her sister because she’s getting so much attention and special treatment because she’s sick, but the truth is, Dani is grieving heavily. For her, sarcasm, coldness, and distancing herself from the present help her cope with what her sister is going through. She doesn’t want to remain close to anyone because she’s struggling with guilt in being the sister who is okay. The one who isn’t sick. More than that, though, Dani feels like she’s been unfairly blessed with the ability to keep on living, despite numerous brushes with death.

Throughout the book, Dani attempts more than once to die — having survived more than one near-death experience, Dani believes she’s been blessed with nine lives, rather than just one. She sees her own death as her way of letting her sister live. Because they’re twins, she believes they have a special sort of connection to one another and by giving up one of her lives, Jena can live. The problem, of course, is that in Dani’s attempts to end her life, she only hurts herself more, not to mention she hurts her family more than she could imagine. It would be easy to call what she’s doing selfish, but it’s not. Dani aches, and this is her release. Each time she made an attempt to die, I hurt for her because she was doing what she thought was good and right. As the reader on the outside, you know it’s not the case, but she is unable — not unwilling, but unable — to realize that. At least immediately.

Although this is a novel about Jena’s cancer, never once did it feel like a drawn out book about an illness. In fact, very little page time is devoted to the illness and what it was doing to Jena. Instead, the book focused more on what cancer did to the sister who didn’t have it. I felt this made the issue of illness more powerful than had the story focused on Jena. Cancer stories have a way of being manipulative sometimes because they put the onus of emotion on the reader, who always brings their own experience to the story. While writing this story from the perspective of the sister dealing with someone else’s cancer certainly will pull upon the reader’s own experiences, Wylie successfully develops a whole story without requiring the reader to face the cancer and implications head on. We’re not forced to feel sympathetic toward a character because they’re battling a disease they have no power over. We’re allowed instead to develop sympathy toward a complex character who may or may not be all that likable. She’s more than a disease. This is a book where illness plays a role in the story, rather than the story playing a role in the illness.

All These Lives is literary, and the story and characters never falter beneath the prose. They work together, and in doing so, the pace stays steady throughout. But more than being literary, what I loved was the message Dani and the reader walked away with — that living is the greatest thing you can ever do for someone else. It’s a realization that emerges after one of the close brushes with death Dani has, and when she has that moment, I understood just how much pain and grief she’d been dealing with and how heavy it truly weighed on her. It was almost easy to believe Dani’s defensiveness and believe that she was sarcastic through and through. The truth was, it was her way of letting herself be dead. That wasn’t what Jena would want from her at all. Some of the lines made me a little teary eyed, as Dani wrestled with the pain of knowing how she’d behaved and the pain of knowing it wasn’t at all what she should be doing to support her sister.

This paragraph’s spoiler-ridden, so proceed with caution. Maybe the thing I appreciated most about this book was that no one dies, but there’s also no miracle cure. Instead, once Dani wakes up and decides she needs to live and to love to the best of her capability, the story comes to a satisfying ending. We’re not made to suffer as Jena’s life withers, nor are we forced to believe that she’s suddenly all better. For me, this was the way a story like this is best handled because it really wasn’t Jena’s story. It was Dani’s through and through.

All These Lives will appeal to readers who are looking for a good sibling story, and even though this is fully contemporary, I think it’ll appeal to readers who loved Imaginary Girls for the sibling relationship aspect. Readers who liked Before I Die or Gayle Forman’s If I Stay will find the same emotionally connection with Dani as they did with Tessa and Mia in those two stories. Writing-wise, this one reminded me of Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct, and despite being less edgy (even though Wylie’s book is certainly edgy), All These Lives should appeal to fans of Bick’s novel.

Wylie’s debut impressed me more than I thought it would, and I’m eager to see where she goes next. She’s earned my trust and respect as a reader by taking a subject and twisting my expectations. I also give bonus points to this book for developing a story without a romance in it, which is a rare find, and I think the story is stronger because of that choice.

One of the trends I’m noticing in YA this year is that of survival, of living despite feeling like there’s reason not to, and it’s been fascinating to see how this theme plays out across genres. I’m thinking there’s a great potential book list sometime in the future on this very topic.

Review copy received from the publisher. All These Lives will be available June 5.

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  1. says

    Wonderful review, Kelly. I know what you mean about cancer books and how they tend to manipulate the reader. I like finding books that focus on how the family is handling someone's cancer because I can relate to that after dealing with my dad's cancer a few years ago. I'm looking forward to reading this when it releases.

    • says

      This is one that I suspect not only you'll find enjoyable, but one your students will really like too. Aside from being a great exploration of cancer from the non-disease side of things, the voice and writing itself is great.

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