I’m Not Her by Janet Gurtler

By Ekta R. Garg

May 29, 2013

Rated: Bypass it

A young woman goes from the introverted younger sister to the most-sought-after freshman in a matter of days when her popular athletic senior sister gets a cancer diagnosis.  When the main character finally attains the popularity she craved and that her sister so easily owned, she realizes that beneath the façade lies unforeseen challenges.  Author Janet Gurtler provides her young adult readers with this premise in I’m Not Her that unfortunately falls flat in terms of realism.

Tess has spent her entire life living in the shadow of her big sister, Kristina.  As a high school senior and volleyball star—and gorgeous to boot—Kristina plays the role of popular girl to the hilt.  While she never acts cruelly with anyone, she also retains full knowledge of her popularity and uses it to her full advantage.  Everyone in the Smith family—especially Tess—understands that popularity and good looks comprise the essence of Kristina’s personality.

While she has her own positive qualities as an ace student and a promising artist, Tess becomes invisible when Kristina is around.  Tess resents her sister’s status, and she spends a lot of time on her art and also with her best friend, Melissa, gossiping about the shallow seniors with Kristina headlining that list.  Despite all the time spent griping about her, Tess secretly wishes for her Kristina’s life.  She wants to know how it feels to have the entire school hanging on her every word.

Be careful what you wish for, the maxim goes, and Tess finds this out firsthand when Kristina goes the doctor and gets a diagnosis of osteosarcoma—cancer of the bone; in Kristina’s case her knee.  Due to the aggressive nature of the cancer, Kristina goes into the hospital right away and commands Tess not to tell anyone in school about the cancer or her hospitalization.  Even though it goes against her better judgment, Tess complies.  But she still has to go to school, and suddenly everyone wants to know what happened to Kristina, why she hasn’t come back to school, and why she has dropped contact with everyone via all forms of social media.

The stress of Kristina’s secret begins to wear on Tess at school, and things don’t improve for her at home.  Now, not only is she the brainy child who “dabbles” in art, she also has to act as the emotionally strong one.  Her father buries himself in his work and doesn’t engage with his family at all; her mother escapes for “retail therapy” by spending hours and money shopping.  Tess kind of likes getting a glimpse into her sister’s life, but she also starts seeing her best friend in a new, and negative, light and she starts to understand that pretty looks and popularity might not be so easy to carry off as Kristina makes it look.

Author Janet Gurtler explores the themes of popularity and peer pressure with some measure of experience, but for the most part I’m Not Her doesn’t ring true to real life.  Tess shares some raw emotions about having a family member with cancer, and her emotions sound real enough.  However, the other characters come across as grossly exaggerated versions of real-life people.

Neither of Tess’ parents possesses enough maturity to deal with every-day life; asking them to deal with Kristina’s cancer puts both of them over the edge.  In fact, none of the adults in the book offer Tess any stability.  She has no “safe place” where she can just be a 15-year-old freshman and let someone else take the burden.  Even Kristina’s physician comes across as cold, almost wooden in her interaction with the family.  Often physicians may lack any emotional involvement with their patients, which could somewhat excuse the doctor’s characterization.  But the fact that not one single adult in the entire book has anything even remotely wise or mature to share with Tess makes this book skew wildly toward the side of “unrealistic.”

The teenagers surrounding Tess seem slightly better, but even many of them fall short of the real deal.  Her best friend, Melissa, has become so disillusioned with life that cruelty seeps from her with unusually high toxicity.  Despite an opportunity to redeem herself, she doesn’t and instead will make readers lose any sympathy whatsoever for those shunned by the high school “in” crowd.  Nick, a high school senior who shows a wavering interest in Tess, deals with his life’s problems in the most predictable way, and author Gurtler doesn’t allow readers close enough to Kristina for them to find out whether they should sympathize with her or pity her.

At one point Tess accuses another character of using her for personal gain; it may be the most real statement in the entire book as readers find out that that character exists in the book only for that purpose.  Most of the other characters, too, seem to function as placeholders so that Tess can narrate her story.  Gurtler keeps readers somewhat engaged because of a prologue with a hook and a surprise ending that no one will anticipate, but as a book her story will disappoint readers by the end.  Young adult readers might pick this one up, but with much better fare like The Hunger Games and other books on the market for that particular niche even young adult readers could give I’m Not Her a pass.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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