Shelly’s (Discovering Computers, 2012, etc.) novel explores the quandaries of a family struck by unthinkable tragedy.
One snowy afternoon in 1990, a school bus plunges into a freezing river in Rochester, New York. Sarah Nealle—a pregnant woman whose 6-year-old daughter Amy was on the bus—is in the process of driving to Sloane Hospital when she goes into labor. She delivers her baby alone in the car, passes out, and wakes up in Sloane to learn that Amy was gravely injured. As Sarah recovers in the company of her parents and her husband, Kirk, surgeons struggle to help the unconscious Amy, who shows signs of brain death. Meanwhile, a new state law passes that allows the families of brain-dead patients to donate their loved one’s organs. But an anti-abortion group fears that the new law threatens their own legal tactics, and they realize that Amy could be a politically expedient symbol. Soon, a maelstrom of journalists and protestors quickly descends on the hospital and the Nealle family. Meanwhile, Sarah navigates her troubled marriage and hears from other patients about the agony of waiting for donated organs. Although Sarah is the book’s main focus, Shelley spends time with a broad range of other characters, including Elliott Howerd, an embattled surgeon trying to do the right thing; Gilbert Dillian, Sarah’s curmudgeonly but vulnerable father; and Fly Nugent, a tenacious reporter. Shelly successfully portrays an intensely painful dilemma, and readers will feel empathy for Sarah as she wavers between accepting Amy’s death and fiercely rejecting the idea. The book’s large cast allows the author to sympathetically portray a wide range of views, with the exception of the most strident “pro-lifers.” The prose flirts with sentimentality at times, as perhaps any story about adorable, dying children must, and Shelly’s tendency to use staccato sentence fragments (“Startled awake. Another watch check. Three-twenty-two. Still no bus”) sometimes becomes grating. That said, the book remains a well-told, worldly story about a complex issue.
An often moving tale that humanizes the process of organ donation.