Chapter 1: The White Room
Madeline Whittier lives in a white room, with white furniture. She reads constantly, from brand-new books that arrive sealed in plastic. The only people she sees are her mother and her nurse. Maddy writes notes in the books, promising various rewards to anyone who finds a book and returns it to her.
Chapter 2: SCID Row
The disease that keeps Maddy in her room is called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). Essentially, she is allergic to the world. According to her mother, Maddy almost died from the condition as an infant. She has not left her house in seventeen years.
Chapter 3: Brthdae Uish
Maddy’s eighteenth birthday celebration is like all the others before it. The nurse has the day off. Maddy and her mother, who is a doctor, eat white cake. They play Phonetic Scrabble, which the mother always wins. (This time, she insists on P O K A L I P S for “apocalypse.”) They finish by watching a movie.
Chapter 4: Stays the Same
The next day, the nurse, Carla, is back. During her daily check of Maddy’s vital signs, she chuckles over the birthday routine Maddy has with her mother. Carla and her own daughter, Rosa, have grown less close, now that Rosa is old enough to be interested in boys. Maddy is re-reading Flowers for Algernon, a favorite book of hers.
Chapter 5: Life Is ShortTM
The Algernon in Flowers for Algernon is a mouse. It dies.
Chapter 6: Alien Invasion, Part 2
Maddy and Carla watch a moving van pull up next door. A new family is moving in. This happened before.
Chapter 7: Madeline’s Diary
The last time someone moved out, Maddy was very sad. The boy in the family that moved out cried because he did not want to leave. That night, Maddy dreamt that aliens had kidnapped the family, and also her mother and Carla, and she was left all alone.
Chapter 8: The Welcome Committee
The new family includes a girl a little younger than Maddy and a tall boy dressed all in black. The boy’s mother calls him Olly. He does a parkour move on the front of the house. When he looks up and sees Maddy, he smiles. Maddy tries to smile back, but her expression comes out as a frown.
Chapter 9: My White Balloon
Maddy dreams of inflating and deflating as she breathes. The house inflates and deflates with her. She feels ready to burst.
Chapter 10: Neighborhood Watch
Maddy watches the new family. Every day, the father goes to work, comes home, drinks, and yells at the rest of the family. The mother gardens in the mornings and runs errands in the afternoons. Olly’s sister, Kara, sneaks cigarettes, and texts and talks on her phone all day. Olly’s schedule is unpredictable.
Chapter 11: I Spy
Olly’s second-floor bedroom is almost directly opposite Maddy’s. Sometimes Olly sleeps until noon. Most days, however, he gets up around 9 a.m. and swings himself up onto the roof of his house, where he spends the next hour. His room is sparsely furnished, and he has not finished unpacking.
Analysis: Chapters 1–11
Maddy, trapped in her home and suffering from a rare illness, knows that she will never have the life she dreams of, so she lives vicariously through her books. We first see Maddy feeling like she cannot fully experience life when she imagines in detail the “adventures” that her book has, from the mundane process of being printed and bound to its delivery to her. It is an adventure that Maddy recognizes she can never have. The ritual of labeling all her books with her name and the reward that will be granted upon their return shows Maddy’s yearning for the adventures she might have if she could leave her home. The novel contrasts her desire to live as a normal teen with the reality of being captive in her own home.
Although Maddy and her mother have forged a very strong bond, there is a profound sadness in both of them that they never speak of. A sadness is alluded to in the description of Maddy’s mother’s concerned face, teary eyes, and quiet reflection every time she looks lovingly at Maddy. Maddy feigns enjoyment of traditions while inwardly acknowledging that she is missing out on the things she should be looking forward to. Maddy understands that she is deprived of normal coming-of-age milestones, and though she is melancholy, she goes through the motions of the birthday routine to assuage the underlying tension plaguing her mother.
Maddy’s existence is a series of routines that repeat, and while she accepts that her bubble will likely never expand, she continuously hopes for a new outcome. When new neighbors move into the house next door, Maddy hopes the family will bring something different and exciting to her life. The scene underscores the tragedy of Maddy’s existence. She is physically and figuratively confined indoors with no realistic hope of change to her circumstance. Maddy’s dreams show that in her subconscious she feels alone and tormented by her inability to escape her life, despite the constant care and attention that she receives from her mother and Carla. Yet as she is left behind by the aliens in her dreams, and the people in her life that live a normal life, Maddy exhibits a fascination, and near obsession, with her neighbors’ routines.
Maddy finds Olly’s unpredictability exhilarating, confusing, and in stark contrast to the routine of her existence. She watches Olly’s every impulsive move. When Olly scales the wall to observe the situation from above, he physically removes himself from the source of his stress and the reality of the events at ground level. Maddy is drawn to Olly because every moment of her life has been predictable, and she craves the chaos of not knowing what may happen next. Maddy’s pent-up frustration is illustrated in a dream where she expands and contracts like a balloon about to explode. In contemplating her desire for adventure, Maddy subconsciously grapples with how she has nothing and everything to lose. Olly’s behavior in his new room demonstrates that he does not feel connected to his new surroundings. He is unsure if he will remain there for long, highlighting the instability in his life and the unmoored feeling that drives his character. Olly leaves his blinds open most of the time, inviting Maddy into his realm. He is mysterious in his behavior, showing us that he, like Maddy, is craving attention and connection with someone.