Life in a Fish Bowl
Bloomsbury, 2017 336 pgs.
Jackie, a shy, socially awkward teen, has a very predictable and typical teenage life. This all changes when her politician father is diagnosed with a inoperable brain tumor. In order to secure his family's financial future, Dad puts his life up for auction on eBay. The company pulls the sale, but not before it has become the subject of national news and a bidding war. A TV producer approaches the family and convinces them to become the focus of a reality TV show. The crew moves into the family home, recording the process of his death and the effect on the family. Alternating points of view trace the family's journey including Jackie, her father, the TV producer, a nun who wants to save the father's soul, a wealthy mad-man who is looking for a thrill money can't buy, and the brain tumor itself. The producer is unscrupulous and ambitious. He edits the footage to make the father look worse than he is and to manipulate the situation in order to appeal to America for high ratings. Jackie takes matters into her own hands by taping what is really happening behind the scenes. With the help of a boy from Russia who she has met on-line and a teen girl who has connected Jackie's story to the video game world Jackie is able to run an alternate show on YouTube depicting the reality behind the fiction contrived by the television network and the dishonesty and corruption displayed by the crew. Meanwhile, Dad wants to die peacefully and not live out his life suffering in a state of vegetation. Can the family regain control of their household and help Dad get his final wish?
Vlahos turns from the rock and roll world of The Scar Boys and Scar Girl to the reality behind reality television. Multiple points of view narrate the tale, adding depth and understanding to a complicated situation. All of the voices are written distinctly and the narration is never confusing. Having lost a mother to a brain tumor, I know a bit about this world. Vlahos traces the journey accurately and respectfully. He clearly did his homework and the deterioration of Dad's memories felt very close to home for me. Teens exposed to a wide variety of reality TV will benefit from the seeing how contrived production of these shows really is. Vlahos raises the question "how valuable is a human life?" by first putting a life up for bid on eBay and then deciding whether or not Dad has the right to chose his own death. The nun offers a contradictory perspective, yet seems a bit crazy and tightly wound, promoting Vlahos' apparent agenda that people do have the right to chose when to die when terminally ill. The plot never stops moving and offers twists and turns along the way, encouraging readers to keep turning pages even though the subject matter gets heavy. Jackie's on-line friend from Russia seemed sketchy to me and I wan't sure if he was a real teenage boy, but it turned out he was the real deal, which had me breathing a sigh of relief. Jackie's friends are all on-line, which seemed sad to an old-timer such as myself, but is indicative of today's youth culture. The book steamrolls along to an exciting crescendo and then ends in a satisfying conclusion with no loose ends, which teen readers will appreciate. A fun book reflective of today's society with a lot to say and many layers.