One of the universal beliefs of adolescence is that what is happening to you is uniquely unfair, that no one has ever suffered quite so unjustly or inexplicably as you have.
In Nickel, a new YA novel by Robert Wilder, that belief is entirely true for 15-year-old Monroe. Monroe has a mystery illness that no one can diagnose: It might be an allergy to nickel, or mold, or it might be too much stress. Whatever it is, it creates a painful red rash that blisters the skin around her mouth and slowly stretches across her body, until she has to wear oven mitts to handle anything with her blistered hands.
Her mother makes Monroe get her braces removed early, in case the metal is exacerbating the illness. She makes her eat an all-organic diet. She throws out all her clothes and makes her dress all in white organic cotton, including cotton slippers instead of her beloved Doc Martins. All the kids at school start treating Monroe like a leper. She slowly gets weaker and weaker, and no one can tell her why it’s happening or how to stop it. If ever there was a teenager justified in thinking her life is unfair, it’s Monroe.
But Monroe is not the protagonist of Nickel. She’s a secondary character.
The protagonist is Monroe’s best friend Coy, who bonds with her over their shared love of the 1980s and disdain for modern technology — a convenient character trait that allows Wilder to ignore any changes that the junior high experience may have incurred over the past 30 years. Coy obsesses over Monroe’s mystery illness, opening every chapter with research notes on her condition.
But Coy has other things on his mind, too. His mother is in a mental hospital. His father is dead. And he’s in the process of acquiring his first real girlfriend, a shiny-haired blonde named Avree who runs with the school’s popular crowd.
And so the story of Nickel is not, really, the story of Monroe and her illness. It’s the story of a boy trying to reconcile his friendship with Monroe with the reality of her illness and with his burgeoning romance with Avree.
It’s the story of how, over the course of the book, Coy begins to reject the insular world he’s created with Monroe, one built on an ’80s-era belief that outsiders are inherently superior to the popular kids, morally, aesthetically, and intellectually. It’s the story of how he tries to replace that world with one in which popular kids can be kind and smart, and outcasts can be valuable too.
As Coy develops his new worldview, Monroe becomes less and less her own character and more a kind of avatar for all of Coy’s old rage and resentment and condescension, snapping furiously at anyone who approaches her. She has a showdown with Avree over whether it’s ever okay to listen to bubblegum pop for fun, if it makes you happy:
"Here’s the thing, A-ver-ree."
"Sure. … There’s a difference between really listening to something and just background Muzak. … A lot more intense, you know?"
…Monroe rolled up her sleeves so we could see the dark bruises on the inside and white scabs on the outside. She was just showing off, but it still made me sad. "I just can’t live all phony like that. I don’t want a meaningless life."
It’s a silly adolescent posture, this belief that in order to be an authentic and valuable human being you have to listen solely to AC/DC and Yo La Tengo. But you can’t blame Monroe for affecting it: She’s slowly dying of a mystery disease that leaves her skin covered in blisters; she needs to cling to her moments of moral superiority wherever she can find them.
But Nickel is less interested in the reasoning for Monroe’s flaring and virulent hatred than in Coy’s reactions to it, and in his transition from the beginning of the book — when he wholeheartedly agrees with Monroe — to the end, when, under Avree’s influence, he’s able to conclude, "Like, life is not a competitive sport."
That’s a shame, because Coy and his problems are a lot less interesting than Monroe and her problems. It’s starting to occur to him that popular people are not inherently monstrous, and this is confusing. A pretty girl likes him, and that’s confusing too. His mother isn’t well, and this is sad. His best friend isn’t well, and this is primarily interesting for the ways in which it affects him.
Coy’s story is especially weak when compared with the story of Monroe, which runs right under the surface of the book — the story of a girl whose body angrily and violently rejects her right at the beginning of adolescence, a girl who based her identity on the idea that she hated superficiality and now finds the world calling her bluff.
Sympathetic teenage girls who are angry and spiky and aggressively unpretty are rare enough in pop culture; for one to come along only to serve primarily as a symbol of the past along her dull male friend’s path to enlightenment adds insult to injury.
Still, the moments when Monroe’s voice is allowed to break away from Coy’s are electric. Halfway through the book, Coy tries to tell her that he understands how she feels:
"Really?" Monroe’s eyes got crazy Ping-Pong ball big. … "Really? You’ve had all this?" She pointed to her face with both hands. "You’ve had your parents give away all your pets?" Her laugh scared me. "And your stuffed pets too, because they are ‘dust sponges’? People laughing at you at school or worse, pretending they don’t even see you even though you went over to their house to play Spice Girls records every day in third grade? You have arms like this? Weeks where you can’t eat anything that has color? All this?"
Narratively, the moment serves as a reminder to Coy that his adolescent belief in the primacy of his problems is untrue: His life is not the most unfair life possible. Monroe is proof.
But it’s also a glimpse at the story Monroe finds herself living out — and that’s a story that’s well worth reading.