A seriously ill girl gets philosophical guidance from an imaginary friend in this novel.
Lily Fiore, 12, has been very sick with a blood cancer for three years. Her parents moved the family from a place called Reverie to Salvation, New York, a town built up around a famous children’s hospital; there, Lily receives grueling transfusions and other treatments. As if serious illness wasn’t bad enough, Lily is isolated to avoid contact with people and their germs. Her worried parents try to stay positive and look for signs that prove that their daughter will recover. Throughout the novel, Lily—a thoughtful girl—considers big questions, such as whether life is random, the nature of eternity, and the lessons of her beloved, late grandfather Tony Agnello, who taught her to pray when she was 6: “Always start and end the day being grateful, thanking God, the Universe, the Great Spirit or whatever you want to believe is the ultimate truth.” Lily’s imaginary friend, the kindhearted Bebette, began appearing to Lily in her dreams and waking thoughts after she became ill. They play together and chat, often in “Hide-Land,” a magical kingdom where Lily could fly—until about a year ago, after the family moved. In a long conversation, Bebette explains Hide-Land, what it means to be a “Seeker,” the importance of dreams, and the advisability of having a philosophy of life. As new developments loom—a medication, a friend—Lily goes on a dream journey that helps prepare her for what’s next.
Barone (The Clown Don, 2017, etc.) treads on dangerous ground by using the heart-wrenching image of a very sick young girl to win readers’ support. The opening pages do play on their sympathies, as when Lily dreams of children playing ring-around-the-rosie who then turn into horrifying skeletons and ashes. But to Barone’s credit, he doesn’t melodramatically dwell on Lily’s pain, fear, or potential death; instead, he usually addresses such concerns more subtly, as with images of flight. Lily’s father, for example, becomes obsessed with building her a helicopter (or buying a $100,000 do-it-yourself kit) so that she may fly in reality, if not in her dreams. For Lily’s mother, safety is the chief concern, and it’s shown how unfair it is for Lily’s father to make her a villain: “Why do you always make impossible suggestions that I am forced to reject?” she says. Lily, who overhears their argument, is shown to have the insight that what needs fixing is her broken imagination: “She didn’t need a helicopter. She needed to fly without one.” Similarly, Barone shows Lily’s fiercely spirited defense of Bebette and Hide-Land against her mother’s disapproval: “What else do I HAVE right now?” she screams. The book’s proper audience is hard to figure out, though; it’s written from a 12-year-old’s perspective, but Lily is wise beyond her years, and not many tweens will be intrigued by the book’s lengthier, more abstract philosophical discussions.
An uneven but emotional and thoughtful look at a girl facing big questions.