CONNECTING IS TOUGH WHEN YOU CAN'T EVEN TOUCH Sixteen-year-old Phoebe Benson wasn't always germophobic. There was a time she didn't worry obsessively about rogue pathogens lurking on every surface, lying in wait to contaminate her. But that was before her brother Toby's premature birth left him with underdeveloped lungs. Before she got Covid and infected him, putting his already fragile life in danger. To protect Toby's health in the years that follow, Phoebe dedicates herself to pathogen avoidance, refusing to touch any potential sources of contamination—handrails, doorknobs, vending machine buttons, and even other people—leading to an unintended life of seclusion. By the time she reaches high school, her only sources of respite are pottery class and her friendship with Walter, the elderly owner of the used bookstore where she works part-time. Now Walter's devised a plan to help Phoebe overcome her anxiety, and she must decide whether to continue isolating herself or risk everything initiating a friendship with the charming subway busker she can't help but want to touch.
This particular novel centers on the pandemic and how she is terrified of how she could become sick at any time. It doesn't help that her brother, Toby, who was born with underdeveloped lungs, got COVID – from her, no less. The guilt that she feels for this makes her focus all of her energies on avoiding any possible sources of contamination. She becomes a germophobe post-COVID, which is reminiscent of how Bill Murray's character was when viewers first meet him in the movie, 'What About Bob?' Just like he needed to find what worked for him, so does Phoebe need to find what works for her in coping with her fears.
Phoebe's friendship with Walter, the owner of the used bookstore where she works, is a bright spot in the book, as they understand each other and can talk about their shared anxieties and troubles. She also likes a subway busker, and she wants to get to know him and touch him, despite her germophobic tendencies and reclusive nature since all of these anxiety issues set in earlier in her life.
The book shows that anxiety is not something that has to hold you back, but rather something you can work through and learn to understand more fully. Her family helps to show that while they care for her, they also want to keep their son – Phoebe's brother – safe, and sometimes that takes compromises, much of the time on Phoebe's part. Life isn't always easy, just like family, or health issues, or anything else, but knowing people are there, to help cope with issues as they arise, is important and so true to life.
Amalie Jahn has instilled truthful, caring, empathetic characters into a book about what could easily be a highly divisive topic to many people. She does so with warmth and character growth all the while.