Cancer books don’t work for me. There’s an artificiality in the plot and there burden of the story falls upon the reader, rather than on the story teller: because we all have something we can associate with cancer in our own lives, we bring that to the novel. That emotional baggage then carries through the story. More than that, though, characters in the story become victims and heroes simultaneously, without any particular reason other than they’re faced with a horrific illness. The writing floats on the diagnoses rather than on character development or on a story arc beyond the cancer, and the emotional investment is inauthentic. It’s reader manipulation.
That’s not the case with Send Me A Sign, Tiffany Schmidt’s debut novel. In fact, this pushes against the books in the cancer genre that do that.
Mia has cancer — leukemia, in fact. But when she receives the diagnosis, she doesn’t want anyone to know. She hides it from her best girl friends, knowing that it would make her a victim/hero. Knowing it would mean that they would change how they treat her. It’s not just that she’s hiding it from them to protect herself, though; she does it because her mother pressures her to do so. It would shatter the illusion of perfect. Mia’s popular, well-liked, and admired. Cancer would change that.
The thing is, Mia can’t hide her illness from everyone. After a night out at a party, on the drive home and after hearing one of those songs — a sign — Mia asks her best guy friend Gyver to pull the car over. And she tells him. Where she finally allows herself to feel something about it, to shed a few tears, Gyver is strong and steadfast. He wants to know the details and how they can get through this. Yes, they. He’s committed himself right there to fight with her to ensure she comes back stronger than she was before.
She checks into the hospital the following day for chemotherapy, but not before she covers all her bases with her friends. They all believe she’s going to a family member’s house for an extended vacation, though Gyver knows the truth.While building this story for her friends, it becomes clear that there is another guy in Mia’s life: Ryan. The athletic stud who all the girls would love to date but who has a less-than-stunning reputation for how he treats the ladies he dates. Mia’s not sure she’s ready for him, given this reputation. And given the cancer. It’s something she thinks about briefly but doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in, at least prior to her time in the hospital.
It’s a tough chapter to read as Mia’s body reacts to the treatment; at times, she’s lucid and thorough in reporting how she feels and what’s going on. Other times, there are very short blurbs of dialog and little else. Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the technical aspects of the chemo, we’re given the experience first-hand with Mia. We know when she’s feeling okay and when she’s feeling horrible. We’re getting it too. But what Schmidt excels in by writing the treatment this way is that it’s one chapter and it’s over. We aren’t subjected to any more or any less of the hospital experience than necessary. Once Mia is done with treatment, so are we. Because the thing is, this is a story about what happens outside of that.
Now that the chemo is over, Mia and Ryan become closer. As their relationship grows, Mia begins to understand the reputation Ryan had about being a bit of a player may not be true. That in fact, he’s invested in her and their relationship. But she’s not ready, particularly because she doesn’t want his sympathy due to her cancer. She’s gun shy and worried about him finding out the truth. Yet, he still wants her, still cares about her. And there’s also Gyver, her best friend. He is Mia’s rock through all of this, and not just because she has cancer and confided that in him. It’s because he’s always been her rock. He’s always been there for her through good and bad things. I wouldn’t say it took cancer for her to come to this realization — I think Mia’s a hell of a lot stronger of a character than that — but it was through her ability to confide such a huge thing in him where she realizes what he is to her.
What made Send Me A Sign work for me and stand apart from the crowd of cancer lit is that it never once felt like a cancer story, and that’s due in part to the fact Mia chooses to hide it. Even if it feels like it’s for selfish reasons and an effort to protect her reputation, the truth is, Mia doesn’t feel human anymore. She’s so far removed from herself, from her body, and from the experience all together, that she refuses to think about what this all means for her on a grander scale. There’s a real loss of control in her life and in her choices. Where it could be easy to dislike her because she’s lying so much and because, well, she’s at times simply hard to handle, it’s not the cancer that manipulates the reader into finding her sympathetic. It’s the fact she’s gained our trust because we are in on the secret. We know the inner world of Mia more than anyone. We know how complicated it is and how little she finds herself caring for and loving herself. This came to a head for me during a conversation Mia has with her father, something I’m still thinking about months after reading the book. He says to her quite simply: “Sick or not, you’re a person to be respected.” In this moment, she has a wake up call. She realizes how much value she has as a person, a whole person, and not just as an unfortunate victim of circumstances. As a victim of cancer.
While I shy away from the love triangle story line, that’s not what I saw here. Instead, Schmidt develops a great metaphor between the relationships Mia has with these two boys and her relationship to her own body as it fights leukemia. Gyver, the steady constant in her life, is the thing that’s always been there. That’s her determination and strength and strong-will. Ryan, the new thing, is the experience of dealing with cancer and navigating something different. He himself isn’t a cancer; far from it. But he and the cancer share the qualities of being new challenges to face. There’s one scene in the book where this metaphor sings, and it involves Mia’s cat. Although I felt a tiny bit manipulated by it (I think anyone with this sort of experience would feel that way), it ultimately drives home the powerful friendship between Mia and Gyver. They’re rock solid, even if sometimes Mia doesn’t feel that way. Schmidt nailed romantic tension throughout the story in a way that worked for me, even though I’m not a romantic. It was reminiscent of Jenny Han’s “Summer” series, the way the main character has complete agency but still wants to satisfy her heart and both of her choices have their positive aspects and their negative aspects. There is no perfect person in Schmidt’s story, which is precisely why this works.
Another side of Mia I haven’t touched on yet but I think a lot of readers will dig: there’s a weaving of superstition throughout. Mia believes in these signs, believes that if she listens to the right song at the right moment, she needs to act a certain way. That if she does things in a certain order, it will give her control. This, of course, all relates right back to the notion of control and illusion of control. But more than that, Schmidt’s use of this character trait ties into what may be the biggest take away of this story — what it means to choose. Mia has to make so many choices, and none of them are easy. She has to consider who she lets in and who she doesn’t let in. What she is to herself and what she is to others. Whether or not she’s strong enough to go this alone or whether she needs support. Following those signs is a choice Mia makes. It’s never about a right choice or a wrong choice; it’s about choice, period.
There were a couple of minor issues I had with the story. The first is that I felt that Mia’s friends were forgettable and interchangeable. They don’t play a huge role in the story, and that’s because Mia chooses that as her way of handling them. It makes sense they aren’t fully-developed, and it makes sense I found them annoying when they were around. My other quibble was that I wish I had known Mia a little more prior to the diagnosis. I didn’t wish to know what led to her seeking out a doctor for feeling ill; rather, I wish I had gotten to know her on an emotional and relationship-interaction level a little more. For me, that would have made the already-strong character arc even stronger. If anything, it’s a sign of how much I cared about Mia and how much I wanted to know her even more.
Send Me A Sign isn’t a book about a girl who becomes wiser, more insightful, more worldly, or more well-loved because she’s tackling cancer. It’s a book about a girl who figures out what it means to respect herself and understand the fact she has a choice in how she lives her own life. Mia’s a teen girl dealing with teen girl problems — boys, friends, family — and it so happens that leukemia throws her for a loop when she thinks she has those things under control. Because that’s how it works. In no way would I consider Tiffany Schmidt’s book a “cancer book.” I have no doubt Mia would feel the same way.
Hand Schmidt’s debut to fans of Jenny Han, particularly for the romantic elements, the strong and determined lead female character, and for the great writing (because the writing in Send Me A Sign — even though I haven’t spent a long time talking about it — is one of the book’s strengths). I think this book will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen, as well as Siobhan Vivian.
Oh, and if you’re curious: Mia makes the right choice at the end of the book. I never flip to the end to find these things out, but I was so invested in the story I needed to know. The conclusion was beyond satisfying to my heart. I guess that’s a spoiler, isn’t it? Mia doesn’t die. She doesn’t need to to get us to pay attention though.
She’s a hell of a lot more interesting than that.
Review copy received from the publisher. Send Me A Sign will be available October 2. You will hear more about this book from the author here later on this year. Also, Tiffany is donating $1 to cancer charities for each copy of her book pre-ordered through the end of the month. You can read about why and order through her website.