Book review: Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

Note: I’m leaving this book review up although it is no longer an accurate reflection of my feelings about this book because I don’t believe in erasing history, but I do wish to note, strongly, that I don’t endorse the sentiments stated below anymore, and that my overall perception of this book is actually that it’s quite harmful, with negative depictions of disability — I was in a very different place in my relationship with disability when I wrote this, and I hadn’t talked with people who shared the condition discussed in the book. I think this exemplifies how readings and perceptions of a book can change over time, and the importance of being able to admit that you’ve been wrong — which I definitely was, when it comes to this book. At Disability In Kidlit, you can read a very different take on Everything, Everything that accurately, and sharply, pinpoints the myriad problems with Everything, Everything, and I hope you read that instead of this. 

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything is a book about disability. It’s also not a book about disability. It’s a book about love and human relationships and family and it’s a book about ugly, troubling things that happen in unhealthy families dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events. It’s a complex, layered book, and it’s presented in a multimedia format that makes it even more interesting, as the reader really gets to know the narrator and delve into the text. On a side note, the illustrations were done by the author’s partner, which is a cool addition to the story, as I love collaborations like that.

Madeline lives trapped inside her house, living in an environment akin to an airlock thanks to her highly compromised immune system—she’s a bubble girl. Her isolated life is interrupted only by her online classes, her nurse, Carla, and her physician mother, until the day a family moves in next door and she meets Olly. At first, their relationship is purely virtual, carried out in gestures through their windows and online, but they finally meet in person, and she begins to experience a huge and radical shift in her life as she falls in love for the first time but questions how she can have an authentic relationship with the shadow of her disease hovering over them.

As their relationship progresses, her controlling mother finds out and fires Carla for enabling the young lovers while doubling down on her daughter’s isolation. Frustrated, our main character ultimately makes a bid for freedom, fleeing to Hawaii with Olly for a trip she thinks will be her last—she tells her mother that she wants to live a few days in freedom rather than spend a life dying in the confines of her home, and she lies to Olly, telling him she’s on experimental medication that will allow her to travel. While in Hawaii, she gets sick and is flown home, but the doctor who treats her reveals something of note: She doesn’t think that the diagnosis is accurate, leading our narrator to ferret out her medical records and discover that, clinically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with her. Her mother is living out a form of Munchhausen by proxy, isolating her daughter in the wake of anxiety, depression, and stress caused by an accident that killed the rest of the family in Madeline’s childhood.

Thus you spend much of the book accepting and sinking deep into the narrator’s world, one of eternal isolation and distance, only to have the rug yanked out from under you. At times, the structure of her story can be alienating and frustrating, as there’s an implied sense that this is a life that is not worth living—especially when she leaves for Hawaii. While the book hints at the world waiting online, it doesn’t really delve into the full flower of online disability culture and the fact that there’s a huge community of disabled people in similar circumstances who interconnect and interact online. People who can’t or don’t leave their houses use the internet as a way to find their people. Disabled people in those circumstances write amazing books, produce works of art, become noted scholars. Isolation in the physical sense doesn’t mean isolation in the social sense, and I wish that had been explored more, though it might have been challenging in the context of the story being told.

Upon the discovery of the truth, though, the story takes a complicated and ugly turn, as everything you think you know about the characters is upended, and it’s very well crafted and provocative. From being a loving and committed parent who will do anything for her daughter, the mother turns overnight into a monster, but one with nuance. This is not a book where a switch is flipped and we’re supposed to immediately feel unbridled rage for the narrator’s mother, although Madeline’s decision to cut off contact is legitimate. Instead, the story presents this in the context of mental illness, the circumstances that lead to these kinds of life events, and it recognises that people who act like this are often experiencing very complicated mental health issues.

Not in the stereotyped ‘well, she’s just crazy!’ sense, but in the more authentic sense that she experienced an incredibly traumatic event as a young mother, and she never really processed it. Her fear of losing her daughter to another accident led her to create an utterly baroque world in which her daughter was severely ill, and she ferociously believed in it, creating a world to support her beliefs and refusing to acknowledge or accept challenges to the mythology she had created. Everything, Everything forces the reader to think about these issues in a more nuanced way; the mother is both a sympathetic and a hateful character at the end of the book, as you recognise why she was so ill but you’re still angry, and you recognise that it’s possible to have both thoughts in your head at once.

It’s a reflection of the real world, where people can do terrible things and you can understand their motivations but it doesn’t mean you have to like them. It’s okay to not forgive people, or to decide to take time apart from them to process an experience and decide how and if you want to proceed. In the world of Everything, Everything, there’s something giant and potential to look forward to, and our narrator has to feel it out on her own.