Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny by Jessica Queller

Rating: 7 out of 10
Summary: Eleven months after her mother succumbs to cancer, Jessica Queller has herself tested for the BRCA “breast cancer” gene mutation. The results come back positive, putting her at a terrifyingly elevated risk of developing breast cancer before the age of fifty and ovarian cancer in her lifetime.

Thirty-four, unattached, and yearning for marriage and a family of her own, Queller faces an agonizing choice: a lifetime of vigilant screenings and a commitment to fight the disease when caught, or its radical alternative—a prophylactic double mastectomy that would effectively restore life to her, even as it would challenge her most closely held beliefs about body image, identity, and sexuality.

Commentary: This was a very inspirational, insightful, and engrossing read. Queller basically lays it all out there for the reader, giving us an agonizing and detailed look at her mother’s fight with cancer, and finally her own decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy.

What makes it so real and terrifying is that Queller is a normal, everyday woman. She has a job. She has a family. She has boyfriends and girlfriends and she goes out on dates, she lives her life like every other woman in the United States. She has human flaws–she goes through a rebellious stage against her mother, she’s vain at times, she’s (some say) overly picky about men. But that all changes when she finds out that she has an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 44% chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Having a double mastectomy (both breasts completely removed) is not only physically challenging (what with multiple surgeries, plus reconstruction) but also psychologically confusing. Body image, gender, and sexuality are all very delicately balanced topics, and finding a way to make these things work while trying to save your own life is extremely difficult.

Queller lets the reader into her mind with this dilemma. How is she going to have kids? How is she going to date? Have sex? Fall in love? All the little things too: When does she tell someone about her “special condition”? The first date? Before sex? After sex? What kind of reconstructive surgery to get–silicone implants, or skin/muscle grafted from other parts of her body?

Currently, cancer is no longer explicity a death sentence. The modern world has sort of shifted from “Cancer, death,” to “Cancer, now how do I live with this?” Pretty is What Changes deals with this question and does it very well.

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Soul by Tobsha Learner

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: In nineteenth-century Britain, young Lavinia Huntington’s older husband appreciates her lively intellect and seems eager to extend his wife’s education from his study to their bedroom. Lavinia absorbs all he has to teach and glories in the birth of their son.

In twenty-first-century Los Angeles, Julia Huntington studies the human genome, seeking the origins of human emotion. As passionate about her marriage to her beloved Klaus as she is about her life’s work, Julia is delighted to discover that she is pregnant.

Separated by nearly 150 years, Lavinia and Julia suffer the same shock when their men abandon them. Their powerful love becomes painful hate; their intense passion transforms into icy logic. The genes of the Huntington women have formed their emotions–now their life experiences drive them to make decisions that they, and those they love, may long regret.

Commentary: I started reading another of Learner’s novels quite awhile ago, The Witch of Cologne, but I never finished it. However, I really enjoyed Soul–finished it in a day. Learner did a great job of interweaving two stories and two conflicts, transitioning well between one narrative and the next.

I think the best part about this book was the emotion and intensity involved–Learner takes the reader through a whole rollercoaster of ups and downs, and you can feel every single thing that happens to both Lavinia and Julia. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I’m not sure I would have been as strong as Julia, strong enough to hold back from dealing revenge at such a horrible betrayal.

Usually a novel with two narratives can become unbalanced–I’ve read books before where I become far more interested in one story than the other. But Learner did a good job of paralleling Julia’s and Lavinia’s stories.

The one thing I can really pick on is Learner’s central, scientific idea that supposedly tied the two stories together–the question of nature vs. nurture, of whether or not our DNA and basic genetic makeup can determine our behavior. It may be because I am personally so biased (I favor nurture over nature) but I felt that the scientific arguments and evidence presented in Soul were weak and not particularly engaging. The science and genetics weren’t what linked these two related women–their situations and decisions did.

Maybe in the end, especially considering the climax, that is what Learner intended to prove.

Great read, fast-paced and very, very interesting.