Since AIDS was first identified in 1981, hysteria and prejudice have clouded society’s thinking about the deadly disease. Modern medicine’s inability to overcome AIDS, combined with the fact that in the West most of its victims are homosexuals—has led to increased homophobia. But in her deeply moving seventh novel, At Risk, Boston writer Alice Hoffman focuses on a young girl in a small New England town who contracts AIDS through a blood transfusion during surgery. As a result, a family and a community must choose whether to respond with panic or with compassion. In telling that story, Hoffman attempts to force readers to confront their own preconceptions.
Much of the book’s success lies in the fact that Hoffman has grounded her story in the mundane. There is nothing heroic about 11-year-old Amanda Farrell or the people who rally around her. When she is diagnosed with AIDS, her parents are devastated—but they try to maintain their routines. Amanda’s father, an astronomer, continues going to work. Her eight-year-old brother, Charlie, still photographs turtles at the nearby pond. Amanda herself expresses one wish before she dies: to have her braces removed.
Amanda’s mother, Polly, harnesses all of her strength to nurse her daughter—and to fight a group of parents intent on keeping Amanda out of school. But Polly’s determination is tempered with a sense of resignation. When her friend Betsy transfers her son to another school because of her fear, Polly is at first outraged. But when she finally confronts Betsy in the supermarket, their conversation turns to the merits of instant versus genuine chocolate pudding.
Hoffman’s simple, unadorned prose effectively mirrors the ordinariness of the stricken Farrells. In writing about such a topical issue, the author risked turning her book into a mere exercise in case-study journalism. Instead, Hoffman’s imaginative powers and technical skills have combined to create a wrenching work of fiction.
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