The most influential character in Mary Adkins’ debut novel “When You Read This” is not even alive at the time the novel takes place. Iris Massey is a 33 year old who died months after being diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma, a deadly lung cancer commonly developed by smokers.
Iris’s death has a profound impact on those around her. There’s her sister, Jade, a chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in New York City, who hasn’t gone back to work since her sister’s death. There’s Iris’s boss, Smith Simonyi, the president of brand management firm who’s struggling to keep his business afloat. And there’s the hundreds of people who follow her blog.
When Iris discovered she was dying, she turned to a website named “Dying to Blog,” a place where people who are dying can come together and form a community. Smith discovers her blog and her wish to have it published after her death, which leads him into contact with Jade and a journey of self discovery and realization.
Adkins weaves the story together out of excerpts from Iris’s blog, email and texts between various characters, as well as other forms of media like Jade’s submissions to a therapy website. The majority of the story focuses on the relationship between Jade and Smith as they try to come to terms with Iris’s passing. While they first email about cleaning Iris’s things out of the office, their emailing quickly evolves into confidences shared by the closest friends.
After Iris’s death, the one true spot of light in their lives is a new intern Smith hires named Carl. Carl is an extremely outgoing and intelligent college student who has a habit of sending emails to people he shouldn’t, something that conveniently propels the plot forward on numerous occasions. While Carl’s optimistic outlook and wit brings humor and a refreshing lightness to a story that deals with such heavy subject matter, he is undeniably a terrible intern. It’s hard to believe at times that he would not have been fired within his first few days of working at the office. The fact that Smith keeps him on makes the story somewhat less believable, but the loss is worth it for the enjoyment Carl’s character provides.
Iris’s contemplation of death and how a person makes peace with death are the most thought-provoking and interesting parts of the novel. She records her feelings on her blog with topics ranging from her reaction to seeing images of the cancer that’s killing her to her relationship with Jade. Readers also see the comments left on her blog and come to know the commenters as well as Iris herself. The formatting of Iris’s blog, in addition to the email formatting used throughout the novel, makes for a story that keeps the attention of readers in a way that is easy to read and follow. Iris uses drawings and pictures to communicate how she feels about having cancer. It’s an intimate presentation that helps both Iris and readers contemplate dying.
For a book whose back claims it’s “for fans of Rainbow Rowell,” it does not exactly deliver. The characters don’t have as much depth and aren’t as realistic or relatable as those in some of Rowell’s works like “Fangirl” or “Eleanor and Park.” They aren’t as well defined and have more static personalities as well. With the exception of Carl, they don’t stand out as individuals as much as they could. Distinct and vibrant characters are hallmarks of Rowell’s novels, and are simply not as present in “When You Read This.” “When You Read This” does lead readers to contemplate intriguing and important philosophical questions, such as what makes life worth living and how, if at all, the dead should be honored, but it lacks in plot and character development.