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This book is about how Jeffrey copes with the fact that "cancer survivor" is a label that follows him everywhere. To the extent that his best friend is also a cancer survivor, having had TWO forms of cancer. To the extent that he suffers lasting effects from chemo and radiation in the form of a limp and near-complete hopelessness with math. Jeff's darkly humorous friend Tad uses a wheelchair most of the time, and both boys have special permission to take notes on a laptop in class due to motor skill problems.
Eighth grade starts on a positive note, though. He instantly bonds with a friendly, funny new girl named Lindsey, who happens to be gorgeous on top of it. He makes a pact with Tad: He will help his friend get in shape to walk across the stage at eighth-grade graduation if Tad will help him try to pass math. Soon, though, he finds out how crucial passing math will be: if he cannot pass the state-mandated achievement tests, he will be held back in eighth grade. And when your father is an accountant and you're not even that sure he likes you these days, the pressure is even greater.
This is one of those books that tempts me to gush. The voice, the character growth, the portrayal of two different experiences of cancer survival -- the more upbeat Jeff's and the less confident Tad's -- make for a very absorbing read. I love the sudden insights into a cancer survivor's experience that you know in your gut are wholly accurate even if you've never had cancer, such as Tad's realization that his parents had his younger sister in case he didn't survive, and figuring out how to have "the talk" with people when they become important to you. This book is serious, yet fun; heavy, yet normal middle school stuff; and Jeff is hugely likable. Books and movies don't make me cry much. This one made me tear up.
SPOILER: Strictly from a writer's POV here, I knew something at the start of the story: Tad had to die. Both of these boys would not be able to survive; Tad had to portray the other experience, the sadder outcome. Before he ever reaches eighth grade graduation and that walk across the stage, Tad relapses and deteriorates quickly, his death all the sadder because it's a shock, and it happens the day Jeff triumphs in a bike ride to raise funds for cancer research. When Jeff accepts Tad's diploma at graduation along with his own, and visits Tad's grave in the last chapter, there's no artificial tear-jerking. If reading fiction is about an emotional experience, this book delivers in spades.
I picked it up not knowing it's a sequel to an earlier title, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, told from Steven's POV after Jeff, age five, is diagnosed. Though you may want to read the books in order, After Ever After completely stands alone. HIGHLY recommended.