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Book Review: Pandemic by Yvonne Ventresca (The #SVYALit Project)

As part of my Cybils reading, I came across a book called Pandemic. I’m a huge fan of pandemics (in theory only of course). In fact, I have the movie Contagion on my DVR and watch it quite often, much to The Mr.’s dismay. So I was immediately intrigued by this title and looking forward to reading it. It did not disappoint, but it turned out to be a very interesting read for reasons that I was not expecting.

Pandemic is an interesting book because it is about a pandemic, but it also turns out to be a book about the effects of sexual violence on its main character, something I was not expecting at all. I thought that it handled several of the issues really well and was quite pleased with the way that Ventresca is able to show the long term effects of sexual violence on our main character in a unique situation.

When we first meet Lilliann, she is out of school and it is quite clear that *something* happened between her and a male teacher which is being investigated and has had a profound impact on her. She has developed some obsessive fears and anxieties, informed in part by her parents work in infectious diseases (a minor plot convenience that you have to overlook).

Both of her parents are away when the pandemic starts, leaving Lillian on her own. It starts slowly, with occasional news reports, and then it becomes clear that this is the real deal. Kids are left without parents, neighborhoods begin to fall into chaos, and wandering bands of looters start trying to find the resources necessary to survive. Because of her OCD/Anxiety issues that have arisen as a result of her teacher issues, Lillian was in the process of hoarding food. In the beginning she is set up to survive quite nicely, but over time a variety of circumstances play out that put her in a precarious position.

And in the midst of all of this she is still left to deal with the emotional consequences of this event that has happened to her. It doesn’t just go away because she is in a life or death situation. She is still plagued by shame, doubt, confusion, anxiety and fear and these emotions impact the decisions she makes in the midst of this pandemic. They impact how she can or can’t engage with other survivors to try and find help, or to provide it. They impact how she reacts in some very key moments of crisis. The effects of her experience never stop informing who she is and how she acts, even in the midst of a much more imminent crisis, which I think is important and profound because it highlights the long term effects that survivors of sexual violence can experience. They reorient Lilliann in such a way, shifting the core of who she is, that it continue to inform how she views the world and the decisions she makes, much as it can for real world sexual violence survivors.

There is another very interesting thing that we see happening in Pandemic as well as we see how others react when someone discloses that they are the victim of sexual abuse. Why don’t people disclose/report right away we often hear. But the truth is, even those that do report immediately aren’t treated in a way that supports victims. Lillian has two best friends and they each respond quite differently when Lilliann comes forward with her allegations. One friend is believing and supportive while the second is anything but. Even in the midst of a changing world, this second friend is disbelieving and at times cruel and vindictive, blaming her friend for the actions of an adult or accusing her of outright lying.

In the midst of all of this is also some really interesting reflections on the idea of forgiveness, particularly the idea of forgiving those who commit acts of sexual violence against us. Can survivors forgive those who harm them? Should they? Do they have an obligation to? There is no one right answer to this question, some survivors do and some do not. But it is interesting to read Lillian’s story and ponder whether or not she can forgive the teacher that harms her in the midst of a dying world. It puts a pressing perspective on a very real life question. By taking these scenarios into extremes, Ventresca gives us a safe way to discuss very real issues surrounding the topic of sexual violence.

To be clear, this is at the end of the day a book about a pandemic and if you like those types of reads (like me), it’s a pretty good one. There is all the tension that comes as we read about loved ones dying, the slow disintegration of our normal routines, and the attempts to keep oneself fed and safe when all the normal channels cease to function. Ventresca just manages to take it to new and interesting places by making her main character one who is forced to deal with the emotional struggles of abuse in the midst of the end of the world.

About Pandemic:

Even under the most normal circumstances, high school can be a painful and confusing time. Unfortunately, Lilianna’s circumstances are anything but normal. Only a few people know what caused her sudden change from model student to the withdrawn pessimist she has become, but her situation isn’t about to get any better. When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil’s worst fears are realized. With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak-her father in Delaware covering the early stages of the disease and her mother in Hong Kong and unable to get a flight back to New Jersey-Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread illness and fatal disaster. Now, she’s more alone than she’s been since the “incident” at her school months ago.

With friends and neighbors dying all around her, Lil does everything she can just to survive. But as the disease rages on, so does an unexpected tension as Lil is torn between an old ex and a new romantic interest. Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door. In this thrilling debut from author Yvonne Ventresca, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but also her own personal demons. (Publisher’s Description)

Published in May 2014 from Sky Pony Press

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