Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: "Tell Me Something Real" by Calla Devlin

The beautiful, blonde Babcock sisters—brash, confident, artistic Adrienne; sensitive, musical Vanessa; and the youngest, devoutly religious Marie—are growing up in San Diego in 1976. The Babcocks struggle with the same problems many families do—their father works too much and gets bullied by his boss, Vanessa doesn't practice the piano as much as she should, and Adrienne spends a little too much time mouthing off.

But what sets the Babcocks apart is sadness. Their mother has leukemia, and her decline is taking its toll on their family. The girls spend much of their time with their mother at a small clinic across the border in Mexico, where she frequently receives a controversial alternative treatment that doctors in the U.S. aren't allowed to prescribe. While the girls enjoy their time at the clinic, and have found themselves woven into the fabric of its daily life, they hate to see their mother suffering, and even though they know her time is short, they can't picture life without her.

At the clinic they meet Barb, a woman who has befriended their mother while her teenage son, Caleb, receives the same alternative treatment their mother does. Barb and Caleb move into the Babcocks' house, and it isn't long before she has taken control of the unruly, disoriented household, bringing organization and emotional steadiness into the chaos. Caleb awakens feelings in Vanessa she never imagined feeling, and all she wants is to be with him, and worries about his health despite being in remission.

"I learned from Mom that each word is a risk. It takes a certain amount of courage to converse, especially when one of the primary topics of conversation is terminal illness."

As their mother enters what everyone believes will be her last days, their lives are turned upside down. Everything they had depended upon they begin to question, and they wonder what kind of answers they want, and what they will mean for their future. Vanessa, in particular, is torn between her love for her family and her desire to leave home to study at a prestigious music conservatory, but she is unsure she can leave everyone, including Caleb, to pursue the one thing which brings her joy.

I'm being deliberately vague because I don't want to give away one plot twist that Calla Devlin so deftly slips into this book. Knowing it might not affect your enjoyment of the story, but it was nice to be surprised. Tell Me Something Real is an emotionally compelling story of a family in crisis, missing their emotional rudder yet unsure if they'll ever regain their momentum. At the same time, it's a story of the jumble of emotions that accompanies first love, and how we hope the things and the people we care for most can help complete us.

As you might imagine from a book about a family dealing with terminal illness, at times the book veers dangerously close to melodrama, but for the most part Devlin keeps a steady hand on her story. She's a terrific writer and even if you don't get to know all of the characters as well as you get to know Vanessa, who is the heart (and voice) of the book, you can see the immense thought she has put in to all aspects of her story. This is a moving and affecting read, and although it is classified as YA fiction (not that that is a bad thing), it definitely didn't feel that way.

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