Dying teenagers are all the rage, at least when it comes to young adult fiction. Books about terminally ill adolescents have proliferated so greatly that they now constitute a genre: In the last year or so, “sick lit” has become both a Good Reads category and a slur employed by pundits who suspect cynicism in some authors’ subject choice.
Widely considered to be the genre’s apogee, John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” — a book about a pair of teenage cancer patients who fall in love and travel to Amsterdam — will be released as a major motion picture in June.
The premise of Gina Frangello’s second novel, “A Life in Men,” appears to fall squarely within sick-lit terrain: A virginal Ohio teenager named Mary Grace is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the tender age of 17 and fully expects to die before her 30th birthday.
The summer before her junior year of college, Mary’s sophisticated best friend, Nix, arranges a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to the Greek islands, in part so that Mary can lose her virginity in an exotic locale.
In a more conventional book, perhaps one for teenagers, Mary would learn how to live before dying. Nix, meanwhile, would soldier on, forever changed by her friendship with someone taken so soon.
But “A Life in Men” is an altogether different kind of story. Frangello’s powerful novel is ambitious, relentless, and entirely unsentimental.
For reasons at first unknown, Mary and Nix’s trip turns into an utter disaster, ruining their friendship. Well ahead of schedule, Nix puts Mary on a plane back to Ohio to resume a sheltered life of worried parents and lung treatments. Shortly thereafter, during a semester abroad, Nix dies.
Poe thought a beautiful dead woman the most poetical topic in the world; by his standards, “A Life in Men” has a leg up on the competition. Indeed, the promise of death lends an air of tragic romance to the events: Mary, in the dark about why everything went wrong, moves to London and assumes Nix’s name and personality in hopes of making sense of what happened in Greece.
Virginal Mary, determined to escape a fate as what Frank O’Hara might call “a corpse more whole,” sets about gaining a life’s worth of knowledge in the time she has left, embarking on a sexual vision quest with compelling, if not always very nice, men on three continents.
Readers who’ve bemoaned the dearth of good sex scenes in contemporary literary fiction, take heart — Frangello has written enough to lend at least one or two to more prudish contemporaries.
If this sounds a bit too “Eat Pray Love,” bear with me — it’s much better. Although the books cover similar terrain, “A Life in Men” is a work of art, not an upper middle-class escape fantasy.
The brutality and desperation of the love scenes make them transcend titillation, just as the fierceness and privation of foreign lands deflate any chance of them serving as mere fancy backdrops to our heroine’s path to contentment and wholeness.
Mary’s impending demise doesn’t confer happiness or wisdom — she’s just as needy, disaffected, and compromised as someone with a long, boring life ahead of her, perhaps just more urgently so.
The novel is told in third-person narration from Mary and Nix’s points of view, as well as some of the other figures that dart in and out of the friends’ lives. Some of these voices are more compelling than others.
Mary’s diary entries, written in the form of letters to Nix, stick out for their self-serious attitude — almost appropriate for a young, dying woman’s letters to her dead best friend, but still too much. (“[T]hat primal language of bodies has been the one space where Joshua and I have needed no translator, where we have always met as equals. It’s the rest of the time that we struggle with a language barrier, though we both speak English.”)
But this is, after all, a book about death, sex, and the meaning of existence, and thus can be forgiven for being a little bit overwrought sometimes. Ultimately, “A Life in Men” is a moving, and, yes, poetical book.