The summer before starting eighth grade, 13-year-old Corinna Burdette’s mother, Sophie, died of cancer. Before she can fully comprehend the loss and deal with the grief, she must return to school. Feeling sad, isolated and frustrated, she needs to navigate a new year of friendships, teachers, schoolwork and more while grieving her mother and coming to terms with a new relationship with her father. Corinna’s story is the subject of Carole Geithner’s first novel, IF ONLY.
After watching her mother, a talented musician, die at home, Corinna’s life changes radically. The trivialities of middle school just make her feel lonely and awkward, and her closest friends don’t seem to understand. It appears no one knows what to say to her, and she’s aware that some of them are whispering about her behind her back. She worries that she is just the “girl whose mom died.”
"This thoughtful and thought-provoking novel deftly handles its difficult subject matter and should appeal to middle-grade readers interested in a story of both tragedy and grace."
But as the year progresses, she finds ways to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and even gain the attention of her crush, a sweet drummer named Alex. She learns that she is not the only kid at school who has suffered heartbreak and that, while time won’t bring her mother back, it will give her perspective and clarity. From a school support group to shopping with a friend’s mother, from visiting with her favorite aunt to a first kiss, Corinna finds comfort, solace and even happiness in moments both extraordinary and mundane.
Most poignant is Corinna’s relationship with her father. No longer the joking dad she knew before, Corinna feels like she has, in a way, lost him as well. But as the school year draws to a close, they decide to head to Japan, to discover for themselves the place that Sophie loved so much. And so IF ONLY is, in the end, a hopeful novel as it finds joy and optimism in unexpected places.
Tender and honest, this is a successful debut for Geithner, a clinical social worker and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The pace is spot-on, and the teenage characters are realistic (if sometimes written a bit younger than their years). Corinna is sympathetic in her anger, sorrow and moments of happiness. This thoughtful and thought-provoking novel deftly handles its difficult subject matter and should appeal to middle-grade readers interested in a story of both tragedy and grace.
IF ONLY is psychologically complex and enjoyable. Geithner seems to have a knack for getting a sophisticated emotional message across while hitting the developmental mark for her target readers.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 28, 2012