A Teenage M.D. Takes On The Adult World In 'Symptoms Of A Heartbreak'
I was 13 the year Doogie Howser, MD debuted on television, and I loved every minute of it. That charming, mischievous character played by Neil Patrick Harris would have fit right into my group of misfit, too-smart-for-their-own-britches friends. These days, I'm all about Grey's Anatomy. There's just that compelling magic surrounding doctor dramedies that pulls me in every time. Sona Charaipotra's new Symptoms of a Heartbreak falls right in line with the best of those, but it's specifically targeted to a YA audience.
Sixteen-year-old Saira Sehgal — aka Dr. Girl Genius — is fresh out of med school and interning in the pediatric oncology wing of Princeton Presbyterian. Her chosen field was inspired by her dear friend Harper, who died at the age of 8 from leukemia; young Saira was the first to diagnose her. Harper's memory seems to haunt Saira in every corner of the hospital, as does her mother, who is a senior attending in pediatrics at the same hospital. This, plus Saira's age, history, and mild celebrity status, ruffles feathers right from her first day. Saira, being brilliant, eventually falls into place. She also begins to fall in love.
Saira's crush is not on one of her fellow interns, which makes sense, because of course they are too old for her. Instead, she falls for a patient: Lincoln "Link" Cheung-Radcliffe, a handsome teen musician with leukemia (who definitely brings to mind a young Atticus "Link" Lincoln from Grey's Anatomy).
I don't know why I didn't put all these pieces together until the first third of the book. But if you, like me, still have PTSD from A Fault in Our Stars, you'll understand why I immediately flipped to the end to make sure I wasn't about to have my heart ripped out and stomped on. (This is an extremely rare occurrence for me, happening only once before that I can remember, because I had no interest in trudging through the rest of A Storm of Swords if Arya Stark didn't make it.) My fears assuaged, I flipped back to my bookmark and happily continued reading.
That's as much of a spoiler as I'm willing to give you — you'll just have to trust me on this one. If you've ever seen an episode of Grey's Anatomy, you know you're not going to get out of this book completely emotionally unscathed. As much as we'd so desperately like to, we can't save everyone. But you will feel satisfaction, joy, and hope — and some of that hope will be for a sequel.
Symptoms of a Heartbreak is billed as a romantic comedy, despite cancer and medical internships not being topics one should take lightly — and Charaipotra does not. The comedy here centers round Saira's wonderful Indian family: her Dadi, her "Dragon Auntie," her longtime boyfriend Vish (who has yet to come out as gay to anyone but Saira), Saira's fear (and constant failure) of her driving test, and food. So much food. This book gave me so many cravings, I think I gained ten pounds while reading it!
Charaipotra masterfully delivers a rich, multi-layered story, sprinkled with news articles, texts, and sarcastic diagnoses that are well worth the reading.
Charaipotra masterfully delivers a rich, multi-layered story, sprinkled with news articles, texts, and sarcastic diagnoses that are well worth the reading. Even though I've seen my fair share of hospital dramas, I was intrigued and fascinated by her treatment of the role that social media now plays in the contemporary hospital setting. Charaipotra addresses crowdfunding, and its subsequent fatigue, as well as the importance of leveraging Saira's celebrity reach to search for rare donor matches (BeTheMatch.com, mentioned in the book, is a real website, home of the National Marrow Donor Program).
Saira's story is one of a teen required to take on one of the most responsible roles an adult can have, without ever having really had the chance to be a child with the luxury of learning from everyday mistakes. How difficult would it be for someone to have such a high pressure job where you have to keep your emotions in check, while being nothing but a big bag of teenaged emotions? It seems almost impossible for a character in that position to experience social interactions — and love — in an organic way, but Charaipotra makes it look easy.
I highly recommend this book for all the contemporary genius young folks out there — may they all lead the human race into a future as bright as we know Saira's will be!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.