Zac & Mia - A.J. Betts

Zac Meier is sick. He has been stuck in his hospital room for almost a month after a bone marrow transplant, and to make it just that much worse, his mother refuses to go home and leave him in peace. One day, he hears a new voice through the wall; in the next room Zac hears a very angry girl's voice and Lady Gaga repeated over and over and over again. He eventually finds out the girl's name is Mia and she is suffering from cancer in her leg. The two strike up a rather tumultuous but ultimately uplifting and complex friendship over the next nine months. As it says in the official synopsis, "in this tough and tender young adult novel [there's] a lot about love . . . and a little about cancer."

I know what you're thinking. Doesn't this sound a lot like The Fault in Our Stars? And my answer is, perhaps, but without as much emotional manipulation, in my humble opinion. (That's not to say that I don't like Green's novel, but I knew what he wanted me to feel the whole way through.) In Betts' novel, I just knew that I was reading the stories of two very complicated teenagers going through a gruelling set of trials, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The marrow's German—the doctors were allowed to tell me that much. I've had German marrow for fourteen days, and through I'm not yet craving pretzels or beer or lederhosen, it doesn't mean I'm not changed in other ways. Alex and Matt have nicknamed me Helga, and it's caught on. Now the whole football team thinks it's hilarious that I could be part pretzel-baking, beer-swilling, braid swinging Fräulein from Bavaria with massive die Brust.
Zac and Mia are both fantastically rounded characters. While they are not always perfect and loveable, they are real, and display authentic emotions consistently throughout the book. While I admit to being wary of novels focusing on cancer or other terminal illnesses, I did not find myself thinking of this as a "cancer" novel, but rather as a novel about survival, hardship, and unlikely friendships. Even the secondary characters didn't ring false in my eyes. And while I don't thing there are many truly perfect novels (if any), I just really found myself connecting with these characters, even at their worst.
From this side of the wall, I hear the newbie arrive. Nina goes through the instructions in her cheerful air hostess way, as if this flight will go smoothly. It won't. There'll be turbulence. Unexpected stopovers. Bad food. Loss of oxygen and moments of sheer panic. But if the newbie's lucky, he won't endure it alone. 
The first part of the novel is told from Zac's perspective, the second part from alternating perspectives, and the third part from Mia's perspective. This style gives a wonderfully rounded quality to the overall text and gives readers access to the inner-workings of both Zac and Mia. Zac is obsessed with statistics about death while Mia is (or at least was) obsessed with her looks and her status among peers, and although this doesn't last for the entirety of the novel, they are not at all unusual ways of viewing the world from a teenage perspective. 

Originally published in Australia in 2012, Zac & Mia is officially being published in the North American market, and I hope it will see a dedicated audience soon!

Highly Recommended

(Note: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out September 2, 2014)


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