The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach is one of those treacherous stories that sneaks up on you by being comic and sarcastic. It makes you fall in love with its narrator because of, not in spite of, his pure meanness. And then when you fall in love with Ivan, you fall, along with him, in love with Polina and you love them so much and then they break your heart every which way they can.
Ivan is a young man and he has spent the entirety of his seventeen years at The Children of Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. He was abandoned by his mother and he has no knowledge of his family, though once in a desire to know more, he called every Isaenko in all of Belarus. His efforts were discovered when the phone bill came, that every call was to an Isaenko put him on a suspect list of one. He was born with congenital birth defects which I will let him describe:
I, for one, am hideous, and consequently, I’ve developed a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces (and anything else that reminds me of what I look like). But I will bravely face this fact for the sake of my story and describe to you what nature dealt me. My body is horribly incomplete. I only have one arm (my left) and the hand attached to the end of it is deficient in digits (I have two fingers and a thumb). The rest of my appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort. My skin is nearly transparent, revealing the intricate tapestry of my underutilized veins. The muscles in my face are only loosely connected to my brain, resulting in a droopy, flat affect, which makes me look like an idiot, especially when I talk.
What are the chances, then, that Ivan would one day be writing a love story, one that starred himself. It began when Polina came to the hospital, shortly after her parents died in an accident. She came because she was Gravely Ill, in the latter stages of leukemia. She was dying. Ivan knew she was dying. She knew she was dying. And yet, they risked their hearts on friendship and on love.
Ivan lived his life in his mind, imagination and reading were his Fortress of Solitude. He explored all the religions of the world. He wanted to understand why an all powerful god would create someone like him. He read their texts, reducing them to philosophical rubble. In the end, he developed his tenets of faith, the Ivanisms. Like everything else, his humor and his rigor shine through, as you can see when he dispenses with Hinduism. “So, I tried to find God in Hinduism. Instead, I found several thousand of Him, each adorned with anywhere from eight to twenty arms. I only had one arm, so none of these could be my God.”
Ivan resisted caring about anyone, but Polina was special, not just because she was beautiful, but because she was not afraid of him, because she was smart, because she challenged him. Their friendship began with mutual animosity after he was caught stealing her diary. They recognized they shared intellectual curiosity, sardonic humor and an immunity to artifice. They saw each other.
But there’s another love story, too. The staff at The Children of Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children is small and, in Ivan’s view, peopled by Jungian archetypes. Ivan graciously identifies the archetypes of all the staff and residents. He is the Trickster. Polina is the Goddess. Tellingly, the nurse Natalya is the Mother, perhaps because her husband died, so she would never have children. Natalya surely loves Ivan, whether he knows it or not. Throughout his life she has brought him books to read. She recognized he was faking catatonia, and now, is encouraging and enabling the budding friendship between Ivan and Polina. And Ivan surely loves Natalya though he would never think of it in those terms. He trusts her.
Millions are made telling stories of people dying of cancer, particularly young people. There’s always one dying of cancer book or movie topping bestseller lists. Most of them are emotionally manipulative and shallow. The author of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko wants nothing to do with that cheap sentimentality. This is not one of those stories where the dying become so beautiful and aglow like Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment or everyone else in every other book. Cancer is ugly, when leukemia dehydrates the body, the skin cracks, the gums bleed, there’s nothing beautiful or ethereal about it. It’s not cancer that makes Polina wonderful, it’s not cancer that makes her see Ivan, though of course, she would never meet him if she had not come to the hospital. It’s not cancer that makes her brave and bright and daring. She was that already.
If you can make it through this book without laughing, you have no sense of humor at all. If you can make it through this book without crying, you have no heart. Often when I laugh and cry while reading a book, I can feel manipulated, recognizing the awful being piled on the awful with some twee shuffled in, and will resent that manipulation, even if it is effective. But this is not awful on top of awful. It’s awful on top of good on top of silly on top of mean on top of wonderful on top of awful on top of wonderful and so on. It’s so very real, even if the idea of a legless, one-armed romantic hero seems unlikely, Stambach makes it not only likely, but compelling.