I’m Not Her, a deeply touching novel by Janet Gurtler published by Sourcebooks Fire, opens your eyes to how it feels when someone you love is at risk of dying. Tess, the complete opposite of her popular, athletic sister Kristina, learns to deal with her family’s situation of her sister getting cancer while dealing with her own problems. As the story progresses, the whole family learns to deal with change as Kristina is diagnosed with bone cancer.
Gurtler greatly succeeds in making the reader sympathetic for both Tess and Kristina, as well as their parents, as they all realize they need to adapt to their new lives. While some people may think they understand how unfortunate it is for somebody to have cancer, Gurtler describes how the disease not only affects the ill, but also his or her entire family. From their mother denying the seriousness of the situation until the bitter end to their father staying at the office for hours at night, Tess and Kristina struggle to deal with the situation they have been handed – with little help from their parents. Eventually, Tess voices her anger to her parents about their behavior and their inability to cope with her sister’s illness. Tess’s family’s struggles in coping with their situation are another way Gurtler expresses the difficulties of a family dealing with cancer, which resonates with the reader throughout the book.
I’m Not Her is beautifully written, and reaches out to the readers to make them feel as though they are the ones experiencing pain. With the story written in Tess’s perspective, the reader experiences the most popular girl’s invisible sister to the girl seen as Kristina’s partial replacement. Tess is a quiet, intelligent, and creative person, and as she loses her ability to live under the radar and learns to deal with Kristina’s cancer, Tess realizes who her true friends are, as well as how to organize her priorities. Acceptance to the Honor Society, once her biggest goal, becomes a minor desire as she watches her sister struggle to live, feeling ashamed for wanting such superficial things. Throughout the story, Tess struggles to find inspiration for her entry into an art competition that she believes will make her parents take her art more seriously. As the story comes to an end, Tess finds her inspiration in Kristina.
Cover of "I'm Not Her"
While the story is in Tess’s perspective, the reader slowly begins to understand Kristina’s perspective as well. As Kristina shuts out her unlimited number of friends, fearing both embarrassment and their reactions to the person she is becoming, physically as well as emotionally, she confides in only one person. Tess’s classmate, Jeremy, becomes Kristina’s closest friend. He speaks with her comfortably and fully understands her situation, having been through similar experiences due to his own mother’s breast cancer. As Tess gains emotional strength, she realizes that her sister needs her now more than ever, and learns to be as strong as Kristina used to be for the benefit of her whole family. Gurtler reaches out to all readers who have ever felt pain and uses that pain as common ground to make the reader connect with Tess and Kristina, resulting in a powerfully moving story.
As Tess and Kristina’s struggles parallel each other, each sister finds a way to express herself in this time of sadness. Tess confides in one of Kristina’s friends, Nick, who shows interest in her and has problems of his own, and also makes new friends, while Kristina realizes her true self with Jeremy. As tragedy strikes later in the story, both Tess and Kristina grieve even more and learn to be strong for each other.
I would definitely recommend this book to anybody who would like a relatively quick read, as I could not put this book down myself. I felt Gurtler did a great job developing the characters as the story unfolded and making the reader feel compassion. Gurtler’s greatest accomplishment is her emphasis of the real pain associated with cancer and the cold reality of the disease.