ivan isaenko book coverReviewed by Carrie Ardoin

This novel, just by sheer fact of it being a book about two sick teenagers falling in love, will draw comparisons to John Green’s beloved The Fault in Our Stars. To be honest, yes, this was in the book’s synopsis and was what got me to initially give it a try, but after getting into the meat of the story, I didn’t find it all that similar–and that’s a good thing.

The titular character of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is a 17 year old boy living in a hospital for children with severe medical conditions. The book is set in the country of Belarus, and many of the children in the hospital are unfortunate victims of the Chernobyl disaster that took place in 1986 and not only killed people, but affected pregnant women and their unborn children. Ivan is one of those children–born with one arm ending in three fingers and nubs for other limbs, he’s been in the hospital for as long as he can remember. He lives day after tedious day here with a nurse as his only friend, book and his own imagination as his entertainment. Until one November day, Polina comes to the hospital.

Since Ivan is the only patient in the hospital who can actually hold a conversation, he’s of course attracted to another person coming into the hospital who appears to have all her faculties. But Polina’s leukemia means she has little time left. Ivan, who’s used to being a sarcastic know-it-all, has to work hard to even get her to acknowledge him, much less become his friend.

It’s the rich characterization, which brought the occupants of Mazyr Hospital to life, that kept me turning the pages–but Ivan’s voice is mesmerizing. He has a completely unique outlook, and jumps from describing the world and people around him to what’s going on in his own mind seamlessly. Though he’s severely limited physically, socially, and in a myriad of other ways, he’s intelligent and full of heart. Watching him come alive when he met Polina only to have him lose her was heartbreaking.

There was a jumble of things at the end of the novel which I felt happened a bit too hastily for my taste, and a few issues I wish had been explored in more depth. But Ivan’s life, one which many might view as a throwaway or something to be pitied, is an amazing snapshot that shows how those with critical handicaps have been treated throughout history. This book will cement for you that every life matters, and everyone has a struggle, visible or invisible.

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Carrie runs the blog Sweet Southern Home, and is a stay at home wife and mom to one little boy. When she’s not reading, she’s usually watching Netflix with her husband, playing outside with her son, or baking. Her family would describe her as sometimes annoyingly sarcastic, but mostly lovable. 

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.