My Life After Now
by Jessica Verdi
Reviewed by Sally Hessney
Jessica Verdi’s debut novel My Life After Now is about a teenager who tests positive for HIV after a one-night stand. At the start of the young adult novel, it seems abundantly clear that sixteen-year-old Lucy Moore is a shoo-in for the role of Juliet in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. The young aspiring actress lives with her two fathers in a bedroom community outside of New York City. She attends a suburban high school with a reputable performing arts program, and she is crazy about her drama club-president boyfriend, who will undoubtedly land the role of Romeo. When the auburn-haired theater geek is cast as Mercutio instead, it signals that something is about to happen to turn her world upside down.
As a nod to her heroine’s love of musical theater, all of Verdi’s chapter headings in My Life After Now are named after show tunes. In a chapter called “Out Tonight,” which is a song from Lucy’s favorite musical, Rent, she and her friends use fake IDs to sneak into a bar in the city. The song becomes Lucy’s anthem for a night of drunken folly: “I wanna put on a tight skirt…And flirt with a stranger”; “So let’s find a bar…So dark we forget who we are.” When she wakes up in the bed of a stubble-faced musician, Lucy cannot even remember having had sex, let alone using a condom.
Lucy’s voice pervades the novel. It is anguished and young but also imbued with insightfulness and perspicacity, making the teenager more than a match for the role of Mercutio, whose trenchant wit serves as a foil for Romeo’s dopey romantic idealism. In My Life After Now, play rehearsals are a backdrop for Lucy’s pursuit of the answers she seeks to the questions she has about living with HIV. As she grapples with her own mortality, she is rehearsing for a play in which sex and death are inextricably linked and in which young people die untimely deaths. Romeo and Juliet serves to underscore the tragedy of the statistic provided at the end of the book: Young people (ages thirteen to twenty-nine) accounted for thirty-nine percent of all new HIV cases in the U.S. in 2009. As Lucy strives to master the choreography of a swordfight, she is likewise striving to find a new way to interact with the people around her. Whom can she trust? How will they react when they learn the truth? Even as her character dies onstage, Lucy learns she is capable of living a long and relatively healthy life by taking medications to slow the progress of the disease, going to support group meetings, and relying on the love and support of her family and friends. Lucy Moore isn’t going to exit stage left anytime soon.
Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.