One of the most unreliable narrators I’ve read in quite a while, we’re introduced to Audie and her world in Placebo Junkies, where everyone is testing something and nothing is ever what it seems to be. Interspersed with Audie’s blog entries and lost between what is real and what is not, Audie’s narrative pulls readers in and keeps them hooked until the end.
Meet Audie: Professional lab rat. Guinea pig. Serial human test subject. For Audie and her friends, “volunteering” for pharmaceutical drug trials means a quick fix and easy cash.
Sure, there’s the occasional nasty side effect, but Audie’s got things under control. If Monday’s pill causes a rash, Tuesday’s ointment usually clears it right up. Wednesday’s injection soothes the sting from Tuesday’s “cure,” and Thursday’s procedure makes her forget all about Wednesday’s headache. By the time Friday rolls around, there’s plenty of cash in hand and perhaps even a slot in a government-funded psilocybin study, because WEEKEND!
But the best fix of all is her boyfriend, Dylan, whose terminal illness just makes them even more compatible. He’s turning eighteen soon, so Audie is saving up to make it an unforgettable birthday. That means more drug trials than ever before, but Dylan is worth it.
No pain, no gain, Audie tells herself as the pills wear away at her body and mind. No pain, no gain, she repeats as her grip on reality starts to slide. . . .
I knew I was in for a for a roller coaster of a ride when I first opened Placebo Junkies and got hooked within the first few chapters, when readers are introduced to Audie and her roommates who are working the system of big pharma drug testing in order to make huge amounts of money in the shortest amount of time. All of her friends are those who have fallen away from others’ notice- out of a foster system, out of a broken home, beyond care of someone else- so the only ones who halfway care about them are each other. And we’ve all seen the commercials on TV for drug testers: if you have XXX disease, you could be part of our trial, and could be compensated for your time! Yet no one ever says what could go wrong in those shiny commercials, and that’s what Placebo Junkies reveals by showing Audie’s life.
Or so we think. As the story goes on, and Audie’s world starts to collapse, you learn that what you thought was real was not, and things that weren’t real aren’t exactly the truth either. And just when you think you have a handle of Audie’s ‘real life’, everything turns upside down once again.
I really liked how Audie and her companions were portrayed throughout the book. Readers really felt that they were living and breathing beside them, and things fit together from the first. When the illusion of Audie’s world starts to collapse and some of what readers assume to be “reality” starts to creep back in, everything still fits together even with the cracks, until the glass shatters completely.
Additionally, I like the issues that Carleson brings up within Placebo Junkies- there is a lot of human testing that goes on within big pharma that is not recognized, and a lot of it is done by those who need the money; who need a trial treatment for a chronic disease; or who, for some other reason, are not able to say no. It’s one of the ways they can get testers for their drugs- all of these “volunteers” will gloss over the side effects because of a misplaced perception of invincibility, or out of a desperate need for a cure- never mind that the “cure” could be worse that the current disease or that the cure might actually kill you. These are topics that need to be thought about and discussed, but are swept under the rug in the push for better medications.
There is a huge contention in the book revolving around Dylan, Audie’s boyfriend. He’s a point of contention between Audie and Charlotte, Audie and other roommates, and Audie and medical personnel. I don’t want to go into detail because it’s a huge plot point within the book, but in essence, Audie gets labelled a slut and a whore. Even with Audie’s issues, it shouldn’t matter what she does sexually or who she does it with- her body is her body, and it’s her right to do whatever she pleases. If Audie was an Andrew instead, it wouldn’t be as big of an issue.
The ahhh moment for me in Placebo Junkies is a huge plot twist that I don’t want to give away, so I shall give you a visual clue. After you’ve read it, give me a shout out on twitter or via email and come discuss it with me.
Placebo Junkies is definitely a teen/young adult book, for ages fourteen and up; high school collections. Dealing with human medical testing, mental illness, death, and other issues, there are really hard concepts and big issues that younger readers wouldn’t be able to grasp. Librarian’s note: contains sex, drugs, death, mental health, graphic detail of medical procedures, and other things that could be problematic in more conservative communities.
For readers craving other unreliable narrator stories, I’d pair Placebo Junkies with Another Little Piece by Kate Quinn, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
So much happens in the last few chapters of the book, and the end comes so abruptly, I was just left gasping. Placebo Junkies is not meant to be a happy-ever-after-ending book, and it doesn’t end that way- you’re left with questions and feels and things feeling left undone, enough questions about what you missed within Audie’s narratives that you have to go back and re-read it to see if there were clues that you missed.