Review: A Messy, Beautiful Life by Sara Jade Alan

A Messy, Beautiful Life
by Sara Jade Alan

Life is funny sometimes.

And not always the ha, ha kind. Like that one time where a hot guy tried to kiss me and I fell. Down. Hard. And then found out I had cancer.

I’m trying to be strong for my friends and my mom.

And I’m trying so hard to be “just friends” with that hot guy, even though he seems to want so much more. But I won’t do that to him. He’s been through this before with his family, and I’m not going to let him watch me die.

So, I tell myself: Smile Ellie. Be funny Ellie. Don’t cry Ellie, because once I start, I might not stop.

(cover image and synopsis lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Entangled TEEN
Expected Publication date:  October 2nd 2017
Source/Format: eARC via Netgalley
Pre-order links: Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Book Depository
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

My Thoughts:
“A Messy, Beautiful Life”concerns Ellie Hartwood, a seventeen year old leader of her school’s improv group, Spontaneous Combustion. At the start of the book, her team is sharing the stage with another school’s improv group, Scared Scriptless, where she met Jason. Ellie and Jason have undeniable chemistry and connection not only in their stage performance but in romance department as well. But then Ellie is diagnosed with cancer and Jason has just lost a family member from it. Ellie is now torn between keeping Jason, the person who brings her happiness or pushing him away to avoid bringing him sadness.

Whoever wrote the book’s blurb should get some kind of credit because that’s what drew me in to be interested in the book in the first place. Ellie’s voice in the blurb sounds like someone who is sunny and fun but suddenly here comes cancer. I thought it would really be interesting to see how a person with such personality would handle such a devastating situation. And then perusing through the first pages, I found out that Ellie, Jason and their friends do stage improv and I’m like hey, I haven’t read a YA contemporary with characters doing improv before. This is going to be interesting. After finishing the book tho, I’m like sigh, this is disappointing.

The narration is more telling rather than showing. There are a lot of times where Ellie makes info dumps on how certain improv acts are done. Here’s one example: “In the game of Freeze, two players do a scene until someone on the sidelines yells “Freeze” then the players have to hold whatever pose they were in. Another actor tags one person out, takes on the same position but starts an entirely new scene that justifies the starting position. It continues as people call out “Freeze” and start new scene after new scene.”

The characters, even the supposedly sunny and funny Ellie, have lacking personality. This is a shame because Ellie had the potential to be an inspiring character. Jason had the potential to be the supportive and gentlemanly love interest. But they are not given anything much because most of the things are told rather than shown. The side characters are just like background noises, telling the main character what to do: you should go to the party, Ellie; you should already tell Jason you have cancer, Ellie; you should sign up for the standup contest, Ellie.

The characters’ emotions are also kind of just stated there in the pages but not felt by the reader. There are scenes where the characters are in tears but I am not emotional about it. Or where the characters are laughing and I find myself not laughing with them. And where Ellie and her friends are swoony about their love interests and I’m kind of like a dead tree stump reading but not feeling anything. Of course, it’s not like I’m a real dead tree stump cursed to be devoid of emotions but it’s more like the book makes the characters cry, laugh and swoon without having to do the work of building up to those scenes.

While reading, I was getting the sense that things are happening a bit too fast for the characters. There is one when I was like what, they are kissing already when they’ve just met?! I backtracked and checked and it was actually already a matter of days already. Again, the passing of time is literally expository and told by Ellie like, “it’s been nine days since...” too many times and that’s not okay. It could do with filling the pages with daily, routine student activities like class attendance and stuff so the readers feel the passing of time as something resembling real life.

I could tell that the author really has the know how of improv, a backdrop that would really be interesting for cutesy romantic fluff. And the trope of getting through a life-threatening disease such as cancer has proven to be a success in milking the readers’ sympathy in many YA contemporary books. It was a shame that “A Messy, Beautiful Life” had these two things in potential but was not able to deliver on selling both the laughs and tears to me, (a real live human reader and not a dead tree stump, just to clear that thing up).

Diversity Watch:
Ellie’s ethnicity is specifically mentioned. Her mother has Italian descent and her father, Scandinavian.

Jason has tan skin and blue eyes.

Hana Yooon, one of Ellie’s bestfriends is mentioned to be Korean.

Quinn, the other bestfriend is mentioned to have two dads, Steven and Gary.
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