Stella Cross is a living, breathing miracle. At age 17, she was barely hanging on to life, waiting for her name to come up on the heart transplant list. Her heart began failing two years earlier, and since then she’s become the sick girl, having to give up her dreams of competitive swimming, surviving from doctor visit to doctor visit. As Alive opens, a donor heart finally becomes available, and Stella is rushed to surgery. Will she make it? Technically, she’ll be dead for a moment as her own heart is removed to make way for the healthy one that will replace it.
The surgery is a success, and Stella starts to reclaim her life, supported by her best friend Brynn and her super-best-friend-but-wants-more, the loyal (and adorable) Henry. But things are not 100% fine. Stella feels an ache in her chest that her doctors can’t explain, and every day at 5:08 exactly, she experiences an attack of blinding, debilitating agony. Is it all in her head? Psychological trauma would be normal after a heart transplant, after all. But no counseling and no medication seem to help, and to Stella, it’s very, very real.
When a new (gorgeous) boy joins the senior class at her high school, Stella is instantly drawn to him. Levi is seemingly perfect (did I mention gorgeous?), and is attracted right away to Stella as well. Weirdly, when Stella is near Levi, the constant aches seem to vanish. Life without pain is quite a temptation (and plus he’s gorgeous), and almost in the blink of an eye, Stella is glued at the hip to her new boyfriend, ditching (and being mean) to Henry and Brynn.
Is Levi really all that perfect? I think not. There’s something suspicious about the connection she feels to him, and he just keeps doing slightly odd things that set my alarm bells a-ringing. Surest sign that Levi is a creep? He pushes Stella to smoke for the first time. She’s a heart transplant patient! For god’s sake, run for the hills, Stella!
Alive is quite a tale. I don’t know why, but I expected something of a supernatural romance (perhaps à la “Return to Me” – did anyone else see that David Duchovny/Minnie Driver movie?). Instead, it quickly becomes clear that this is a horror story. And not just because Stella and Henry have a history of bonding over their shared love of Stephen King.
Stella is plagued by disturbing, bloody hallucinations – bloody handprints on her shirt, seeing a heart oozing blood in the school anatomy lab, and more disturbingly, the drowning death of her baby sister. When a classmate disappears and is later found dead, Stella’s fears grow even more intense, and she finally begins to heed her friends’ warnings about Levi.
And yet my heart still claws for him, storming the prison made from nothing but the bones of my rib cage. It beats so hard that I know it’s trying to fracture my skeleton. I wait for the first shard to puncture my skin or lung.
I really liked the development of the story. Stella just seems like a normal girl at first, a bit of an outsider thanks to her medical condition, trying to fit back into the life she thought she’d never have. And sure, it seems understandable that she basks in the glow of attention from the new boy, even if she is really cruel to cutie-pie Henry along the way. When the story veers off into gushing blood and scary fits, it’s even better. Look, it’s not just a YA love triangle! There’s something icky and scary going on, and my initial guesses about what and why were actually pretty far off.
The author makes great use of heart imagery as Stella contemplates whether she’s falling in love, thinking about what she may have in her heart and what she physically has going on inside her chest at the same time. There are some really stand-out phrases and passages that capture both essences of the heart, and the writing overall flows well and is easy to become lost in. I found myself completely absorbed, only looking up to discover that an hour had gone by!
What didn’t I love? Well, the end seemed a little muddled to me. I wasn’t entirely clear on how the various points came together and why things worked the way they did, although I was satisfied by the ultimate outcome.
Other than that, I had just a few little nitpicks about the plot itself, a major point being how Levi was able to enroll in and attend Stella’s high school without anyone blinking an eye. Without giving away spoilers, I can’t say more about why this point doesn’t really make sense… but there are a few small items like this that seem a bit too convenient or glossed over.
All in all, though, I though Alive was a good scary thrill, with an insta-love plotline that actually supports the overall story in a way that’s justifiable. Alive is tense and hard to put down, and Stella is a really interesting main character. It’s interesting to see inside the mind of a girl who’s gone through what she has, and I enjoyed seeing her growth and development over the arc of the story.
Alive is the debut novel by Chandler Baker, and I look forward to reading more by her in the future.
Author: Chandler Baker
Publication date: June 9, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: YA horror/supernatural
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley