Saturday, June 6, 2015

Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

I've recommended Robyn Schneider's first novel, The Beginning of Everything, to almost everyone I know. It begins with a scene depicting a kid getting accidentally decapitated at Disneyland while riding the Thunder Mountain Railroad (which I used to call "the Runaway Train" when I was little and lived close to Disneyland), but then unravels protagonist Ezra's belief that everyone has a major tragedy in their life, after which, everything changes. 

Extraordinary Means is a different kind of book than The Beginning of Everything, but carries much of the same style, topics, and discussions that were present in Schneider's first novel. 

Extraordinary Means is told from the dual perspectives of Lane and Sadie, who are both living at Latham House, a sanatorium in California for adolescents with tuberculosis. They wear bracelets that monitor the way that their body functions, alerting nurses and doctors when their stats are too low, but otherwise collecting data for a research team trying to find a vaccination that isn't resistant to the new strand of tuberculosis. The benefit of being at a sanatorium such as this is that they will be the first to try the new vaccination when it's available. While the reader is introduced to the sanatorium through Lane, who arrives on the first page of the book, Sadie has already spent months living in one of the small cottages. She's truly made it her home, and she's anxious to think about what exists for her back at home, if she'd ever able to leave.

Lane describes his first night at Latham House as wildly different from what he's used to. For one thing, he has to face the reality that kids his age die at Latham House, and not everyone hangs on waiting for a possible vaccination. He reflects, "My first night at Latham House, I lay awake in my narrow, gabled room in Cottage 6 wondering how many people had died in it. And I didn't just wonder this casually, either. I did the math. I figured the probability. And I came up with a number: eight. But then, I'd always been terrible at math." Lane is ditched by his tour guide on hist first day at Latham House, causing him to "fail" breakfast because he doesn't fill his tray with nutrition-rich foods. But Lane soon learns that he wasn't ditched at all. His tour guide was just another casualty of the disease. He has trouble adjusting to the new environment. He's an over-achiever, used to spending all of his free time studying and preparing for college applications. He's afraid his future is going to slip through his fingers if he actually "rests" like he's expected to do. He's also having trouble adjusting to being away from home. He notes, "I'm an only child, so the prospect of using the communal bathroom was pretty horrifying. Which is why I set my alarm that first morning for six o'clock, tiptoeing down the hall with my Dopp kit and towel while everyone else was still asleep."

Eventually, he gets taken in by Sadie and her friends, a close-knit group who sneak into the woods, turn off their health monitors, and seem like the right in-group to be a part of. While I loved Sadie's voice and always anticipated returning to her perspective, Lane seemed more developed over the course  of the novel, and I liked his transformation and what he had to say about his life before Latham House and his life after. Lane's realization largely has to do with the way he was working constantly towards a future without living his life day by day.  Latham House, where he's on doctor's orders to stop studying late (it's making him sick), changes all of that. Lane says, "Before I even knew what high school was, I'd already let my fear of not begin the best at it make me miserable. And I was starting to think that if I hadn't gotten sick, I would have done the same thing with college, rushing toward internships and grad school and a job. Somehow, without realizing, I'd made high school into a race toward the best college, as opposed to its own destination. It was only now that I hadn't done the same thing at Latham that I could see it, and I realized how unhappy it made me."

I really enjoyed Schneider's new novel, and what Lane came to understand about himself while he was at Latham House. I also liked the way the title was worked into the novel, and what the "extraordinary means" of this novel are. Schneider also includes an extensive author's note that describes her choice to make tuberculosis important to her novel. I'm looking forward to passing around my copy of Extraordinary Means, just like I did with The Beginning of Everything. 

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