In Cat’s life, there is the time Before, and there is the time After. Before her mother died from breast cancer, Cat was a brainy high school student with early admission to Stanford University. After, she is an angry teenager who jumps at the opportunity to volunteer for a humanitarian aid organization operating in a politically corrupt country ravaged by war.
Told in alternating chapters of life before and after the death of Cat’s mother, Undiscovered Country paints a beautiful relationship between mother and daughter – one of shared secrets, friendship, and laughter – that only gets stronger as the mother’s situation develops from suspicious lump to inexorable illness and death. Cat is the rock holding her family together, scouring medical research and keeping hope alive. Through her, author Jennifer Gold goes into illuminating detail about breast cancer and does a great job explaining the disease and its effect on everyone involved.
In the fictional South American country of Calantes, Cat meets Taylor and Margo, other volunteers with Students Without Boundaries who, like Cat, care more about running away from life back home than making the world a better place. Local boy Rafael is just the opposite. His desperation to save his country at any cost seduces Cat – but the closer they get, the more she is drawn into his growing political fanaticism.
While Undiscovered Country could benefit from some lighter moments, the ones on offer don’t entirely work. Calantes has serious problems, yet the banter between Cat, Margo, and Taylor – while quirky and fun – is more summer camp than civil war. Program leaders and veteran volunteers appear in the early chapters, but then the newbies are left on their own in a desperate, war-torn country. Including an armed guard in the scenario might lessen the impact of the story’s fatal twist and Cat’s moment of enlightenment, but the measure seems like a standard precaution a professional organization – especially one involving minors – would take in a dangerous country. It’s a strange omission that undermines the story’s credibility.
Nevertheless, readers will be moved by Cat’s grief and the intensity of her co-dependent romance. Undiscovered Country is a solid read about one teen’s need to escape the realities of life and death, come to terms with her grief, and find the strength to carry on.