Review: Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

Review: Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

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I’ve held off on reviewing Tiffany Schmidt’s debut young adult novel, Send Me a Sign for some time now, because the farther away I get from the immediacy of reading this book, the more mixed my feelings become. 

On one hand, Schmidt has written a story that is hard to put down—the narrator is not an easy character to like or feel compassionate toward, despite that she’s battling an illness, yet I found myself rooting for her. On the other hand, I keep finding myself not lingering on the quality of the story, but on my discomfort with the main character, her relationships and her motivation, as well as a very uncomfortable feeling about a plot device near the end of the book [spoiler discussion is here] that’s truly one of my book dealbreakers

When I finished reading Send Me a Sign, initially I enjoyed it, having read the book in a single sitting. This is fairly remarkable, as I generally avoid 1) cancer books and 2) books about popular girls—especially from new-to-me authors. And Send Me a Sign has both. The writing was fresh and Send Me a Sign is an emotional novel that surprised me. 

Mia is a popular cheerleader with a perfect life, leading me to think while reading the first few chapters,

“I’m not sure I can spend 300+ pages with a super popular cheerleader, those girls hated me in high school.”

Her friends have the perfect summer before their senior year planned. Except Mia is diagnosed with leukemia. But, she doesn’t tell anyone.

Was it even possible to keep my cancer a secret? I needed a sign.

Actually, she does tell someone: her neighbor Gyver (yes, like MacGyver), who’s a childhood friend. He’s there for her during her stay in the hospital for treatment and is all around wonderful. 

After she returns home following a month in the hospital and having successfully concealed her illness from nearly everyone who cares about her (egged on by her mother in a sadly realistic case of WTF denial), she continues her deception, while being pursued by The Jock aka Ryan. There are many complications in their relationship, and even though Ryan wasn’t the guy that I wanted for Mia (obviously her sweetie pie musician neighbor Gyver is the boy you’ve got to root for), I really applaud Schmidt for never portraying Ryan as a bad guy for the sake of Gyver being the right boy for Mia. Both boys’ reactions to dealing with Mia’s illness rang authentic and it made me care about and sympathize with each of them.

I would love to see more YA authors tackle competing love interests in this way, rather than always villanizing the boy that’s not the “right” choice. 

I also was very intrigued by the parental dynamics in Send Me a Sign. Mia’s mother becomes obsessed with hiding her illness, pretending that everything is normal, while her father is devoted to accumulating as much knowledge about her disease as possible. Both reactions felt realistic (see, there’s a theme here!). Mia’s mother really bothered me, to be honest, because she’s so obsessed with her daughter being popular and having an outwardly perfect life and this just feels yucky to me (note my aforementioned discomfort with the notion of popularity), but at the same time, it also seemed “real.” 

“Mom?” I whispered. The pill had started to pull me toward sleep and I needed to get this out. “Do you think I was stupid not to tell? I miss my friends.”

“I know you do, but they’d just sit here feeling useless and uncomfortable. Do you want them to see you like this?” The words hung in the air: guilt wrapped in a cocoon of maternal caresses and a gentle tone. I knew it was her projecting how she felt, but it didn’t make it less true.

She kissed my 66 cheek and added, “Of course it’s your decision, but things will be back to normal soon.”

However, where the characterization frustrated me was with Mia.

And this is where I think much of my reaction is a personal thing, as opposed to reflective of the quality of the book, because her character is actually very consistent and well-developed. However, I wanted to know more about her, about what she liked to do beyond hanging out with her friends and being the popular cheerleader. And then it hit me: that’s who she is. Thus, the conflict. I don’t have to like characters to care about them (for example, Courtney Summers writes some of the most brilliant unlikeable characters ever, and I always care about them regardless), but I wanted Mia to be more, to want more. But even before her illness, she was exclusively focused on the immediate, on the trappings of high school and wasn’t looking forward, which seemed strange to me, but is maybe part of the nature of the sort of girl Mia is. 

When had people stopped listening when I spoke? It used to be I opened my mouth and had an audience, now they needed to be prompted to pay attention. And, ironically, Ryan used the same argument on Hil that she’d used on the Ally and Laur yesterday: that what I wanted should matter more than what she wanted for me.

What would have helped me better understand me is if Mia’s friendships had been explored more. Or maybe not more, but perhaps in a way that I ended up being more sympathetic to Mia’s circle of popular friends. I had a very hard time discerning which girl was which and this may have been intentional on the part of the writer, but it was frustrating as a reader because it left me unclear as to why it was so important to Mia that she be part of their group. In the end, I still was uncomfortable with them, as much as I’d grown to care about Mia over the course of the novel.

I wanted to know why Mia was friends with this group of girls. Was it because they made her feel like the Golden Girl and therefore awarded some sort of social status—the social status her mother wanted for her? Were they real friends who really cared about her? I suspect the answer is yes, but that’s not addressed in-depth, so that’s more my hope than anything. 

In the end, despite my increasingly-conflicted feelings about Send Me a Sign, it’s definitely a book I recommend.

Send Me a Sign really explores the tension between what we allow people to see of us and our “real” selves and how difficult it is to maintain a facade of perfection. If you avoid cancer/illness books, Schmidt’s debut may be one to check out anyway, as it’s different from many teen novels tackling this subject matter. The book does not detail treatments or have long, drawn-out scenes of illness, which are often upsetting for readers (including me). The payoff for all the characters is hard-earned—and not just because of Mia’s illness—and that alone makes Send Me a Sign a worthy read.

FNL Character Rating: Lyla Garrity

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