Extraordinary Means, Robyn Schneider

Monday, February 12, 2018

I don't know about you, but when I think of tuberculosis patients, I think of pale, waifish invalids lying on fainting couches wanly coughing up blood until they waste away in Victorian politeness. Truth is, tuberculosis is far from being eradicated worldwide. In fact, it is estimated that up to one-third of the world's population is infected with TB. While most tuberculosis cases can be cured with antibiotics (something those Victorian sanitarium patients could only dream of), for people with impaired immune systems, such as those with HIV, tuberculosis is still a killer. And, of course, overuse of antibiotics has led to new, tougher strains of lots of bacterial infections, including TB.

Why do I need to give you a primer on the prevalence of tuberculosis in the modern world to review a YA love story, you ask? Because Robyn Schneider used a drug-resistant strain of TB as the context of her novel, Extraordinary Means. In some near-future time, a strain of TB has developed that does not respond to any conventional treatment. It is so infectious that anyone found to have the disease is sent to live in quarantine conditions. For Lane Rosen, that means a private boarding school, Latham House, that is now a sanitarium for teenagers with the dreaded Total Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis. Before TB, Lane was an AP student, preparing to apply to the Ivy League. He is used to working hard, compulsively so, and plans to continue his studies at Latham House. However, his doctor soon informs him that things will be different-his day will be filled with yoga, health walks, and rest time instead of study sessions. Lane does his best to stick with his self-imposed study schedule, but soon finds that in the struggle between his illness and his determination, his illness always wins.

As he is getting acclimated to Latham House, he notices a group of students (patients) who don't seem to follow the rules. Granted, students are left to wander around pretty much on their own most of the time, and if you miss class, everyone assumes you were too sick to make it. But this group, including a girl named Sadie that he happens to know from summer camp, sneaks off into the woods, dresses provocatively, and generally seems to thumb its nose at the rest of the students (patients). Sadie, for her part, has accepted that she is probably going to die, and so lives each day with reckless (in this case, literally reckless) abandon. Lane ends up a part of the group, and he and Sadie fall in love. Sadie teaches Lane that there is more to life than AP classes and Ivy League collges. Because of Lane, Sadie decides she does have something to live for after all. When news of a possible cure makes its way to Latham House, both Lane and Sadie begin to think about what a future for them outside of the sanitarium might look like. But will the cure come in time?

As epidemic stories go, this one is pretty low on action. No brave doctors risking their lives in disease-ravaged countries to track down the elusive plant/chemical/scientific whatsit needed to find a cure. No rampaging infected to contend with ("28 Days" is my favorite zombie movie). It is, indeed, a story of first love, with all of the conventional elements: meet-cute, miscommunications, obsession, late night phone calls. But in the background, for the characters and for the reader, is the knowledge that unless a cure is found, this particular love story is doomed. Schneider keeps reminding the reader of that fact throughout, with students who were there one day, and quietly gone the next. Finally, the reality of the "death" part of tuberculosis hits their little group, which really brings it home to the reader.

What the novel isn't low on, however, if good characterization and emotional impact. Lane and Sadie are both well-rounded, realistic characters. The rest of their merry band of misfits are also well-written, and each provides a necessary aspect to their little group. Charlie, especially, is endearing, as a gay teen trying to write as much music as possible before the inevitable end of his music writing career. If you are a fan of John Green novels, you will definitely enjoy Extraordinary Means.

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