Pandora's Box by Giselle Green

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Pandora's Box by Giselle Green

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: A powerful story of a mother with a terminally ill teenage daughter, and their joint struggle to come to terms with themselves, the past and the future. Unputdownable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Avon
ISBN: 978-1847560674

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I finished reading Pandora's Box about half an hour ago. I only started it a couple of days ago, and thought it would last me at least a week, but it's one of those books that gripped me almost from the beginning. I've been neglecting just about everything else in life to get to the end of this novel, and emerged feeling slightly shell-shocked, surprised to notice the real world around me again.

It's the story of Rachel and her daughter Shelley. Shelley is nearly fifteen, and is terminally ill. This has made her sometimes wise beyond her years, but she combines this maturity with being a normal moody teenager who likes dressing in black, and feels her mother is over-protective. She spends a lot of time at her computer, and she would love to have a boyfriend.

Rachel is tired, and stressed. She loves her daughter, but caring for her is exhausting, since Shelley is wheel-chair bound. Rachel divorced her husband Bill three years before the story starts, but he still intrudes into her life at times, usually disagreeing with her parenting style. And there's Danny, Shelley's younger brother, who seems to get ignored sometimes because of Shelley's many needs. Moreover, Rachel has given up a lot in her life, and carries around a large burden of guilty feelings.

The story is told in alternating viewpoints - Rachel's and Shelley's. Shelley saw her friend Miriam die a painful death with the same medical condition as she has. So, clear-headed, she decides she will take her own life on her fifteenth birthday. We know this right at the start of the novel, but nobody else does. We also know there are some mysteries in Rachel's past, which may be revealed in old diaries and photos that are stored in a box. It's perhaps slightly forced that Rachel's mother (who sent her the old box of bits and pieces) is called Pandora... and Rachel feels that opening up Pandora's box will bring a lot of trouble to her life. As if she didn't have enough trouble already.

The story is remarkably well-told. Rachel and Shelley both have to come to terms with themselves, to work through the past, and to see what, if anything, their futures might hold. There are some very difficult ethical questions raised in the book - is euthanasia ever right? What about suicide in the case of someone who knows they will soon die an unpleasant death? I could relate quite strongly to Rachel. Just letting my sons go when they leave home is hard enough; the thought of seeing a child die, or take their own life doesn't bear thinking about. Yet Shelley needs to make her own choices, to take responsibility for herself. And she has to persuade her mother to let her do so.

It could have been trite; it could have been over-emotive and cringeworthy. But it's neither. Giselle Green has managed the middle path very effectively. There is a lot of tension and a dramatic climax, where I had no idea what would actually happen until I read the words. I could see the scenes in my mind clearly and feel my head tightening as I turned the last few pages.

If I have a slight quibble with the book, it's that there are some rather caricatured minor characters. Rachel's sister Lily is a shallow and greedy person who seems to have little to commend her, despite some heart-to-heart talks with Rachel. Rachel's ex-husband Bill is a bully, whose only redeeming feature is that he does seem to care for his children. Rachel also has a gay friend called Sol - he's charming and helpful, but it seems that so many modern novels have a token likeable gay character, who can support and care for the main female protagonist without any danger of being romantically involved.

But none of that is significant enough to remove even half a star from my Bookbag rating. The main story lines are excellently done, the main characters utterly believable.

I am very glad I have read this book. It's powerful, emotive, and moving and I'm sure will stay in my mind for some time. Grateful thanks to the publishers for sending the book.

Further reading suggestions: The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney, or You, Me and Him by Alice Peterson. Younger readers might enjoy Before I Die by Jenny Downham.

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Pia Fenton said:

I totally agree with your five star rating – this is an excellent book! I stayed up until the early hours to finish it yesterday, just couldn’t put it down until I knew what happened to Shelley and Rachel. And the characters live on in your mind long after you put it down, which is the true sign of a really good read. Can’t recommend it highly enough!

Jan Sprenger said:

I would also give this five stars.

When I began reading it, I was concerned it might be a bit heavy, given the subject matter, but it wasn't - it was entertaining, amusing, touching and thought-provoking. By the end, I felt I really knew Rachel and Shelley, because I’d followed their emotional journeys.

A charming and heart-warming story.

Many thanks

Jan Sprenger