In the Mirror
by Kaira Rouda
Real You Publishing Group

"Rolling over to get out of bed, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and cringed. My reflection said it all. Everything had changed."

The literature on cancer is extensive, mostly scientific, and sometimes autobiographical. Few novels, Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper comes to mind, shed light on the affect cancer has, not only on the individual, but also the family, friends, coworkers, and all involved. Kaira Rouda's In the Mirror tells the story of Jennifer Wells Benson, a woman who had been living the American Dream with two kids, a loving husband, and a beautiful home; however, her world is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with cancer and is moved to Shady Valley, a "last-ditch experimental facility for the sick and dying." More than anything else, In the Mirror is a unique, first-hand account of how disease ravages one's entire life, all the way down to one's self esteem and self-efficacy.

In Shady Valley, Jennifer befriends Ralph, formerly an investment banker who is essentially given an expiration date of four months or less to live. Food is given an expiration date, not human lives. Together, Jennifer and Ralph try to lead as normal a life as they can, while taking nothing for granted: They play scrabble, talk about their families, and even have a bucket list of reasonable activities. Throughout the novel, Jennifer's emotions are on full display on her quest to be viewed as a human being rather than an object of pity and sympathy.

Numerous scenes are emotionally evocative, but perhaps none are as compelling and symbolic as those where Hank and Hannah, Jennifer's two young children, visit her at Shady Valley. For instance, while sitting on her throne—also known as her hospital bed—she "heard laughter working its magic, floating down the green hall and rushing like a gurgling waterfall into my room." The faces of her children smiling and running to Jennifer are undoubtedly therapeutic, but also demonstrate the divide between the outside world and her personal reality.

For most at Shady Valley, it is a waiting game; hope wears thin. Whether it is the smell or the plain colors of the walls, there is an innate feeling of emptiness. Jennifer, to lift her own spirits, organizes what is basically a farewell party where she can meet, reminisce and provide a peculiar sense of closure to the relationships she has formed throughout her life. Interestingly, Rouda depicts a strong father-daughter relationship; Jennifer's father cannot bear the thought of seeing his daughter, whom he has always envisioned as the epitome of strength and resolve, in such a weakened state. On the contrary, she reaches back into Jennifer's teenage past for Alex Thomas, a former flame that isn't quite extinguished yet. While he shows clear concern for his ailing ex-girlfriend, his behavior, knowing Jennifer is married, is suspect.

The underlying plotlines add backstory to Jennifer's life. In the present moment, however, she is desperate to be wanted, not a kiss on the forehead as her husband Henry is apt to give, but a moment of passion and energy. Alex Thomas reignites her self-worth, calling her his princess, and makes her feel like she is a woman again, not an untouchable cancer patient.

Myriad types of cancer exist and with each cancer, one can pull up scores of statistics from the National Cancer Institute website. In the Mirror shows that each statistic is human, filled with emotion, dreams, and has his or her own story. Rouda approaches the topic with surprising delicacy and sensitivity; the microscopic, seemingly unimportant events have great importance. In many ways, the narrative argues that time is of the essence. One only realizes the importance of time when they are out of it. Moreover, circumstances turn complete strangers into loyal confidantes. Consider the friendship between Jennifer and Ralph, two complete strangers: Their day is incomplete without spending time with each other, sharing stories and laughs. They know they are in the same boat; they are the only ones who can guide each other through the treatments and turmoil with the knowledge that they are possibly spending their last moments on earth in a stale, uninspiring building that reeks of death. In the Mirror is a must read, particularly for those who have been affected by cancer.

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