Side Effects May Include but Aren’t Limited To…

Even though I have a better paying job I still find myself short on cash, enough so that I’ve taken a shallow peek into those medical studies programs. You know the ones: they’ll pay you $1500 to see if a diabetic pill will make your foot rot and fall off or a high blood pressure medication will make your eyes pop out. But hey, at least I’d be compensated for a rotten foot and buggy eyes. One of my favorite sayings is “Why does it cost so much to be alive? I’m not even having a good time.”

In Megan Giddings Lakewood, Lena Johnson knows what I’m talking about. After her beloved grandmother’s funeral, her family finds itself under a mountain of debt due to unpaid hospital bills. Lena’s in college and her own mother is poorly and can’t work, so it’s up to her to find a way to get cash to start paying bills off before they all go under. Lena drops out of college to take care of her mother and the mounting bills. She decides to take a job in the town of Lakewood, Michigan.

The job seems sweet as advertised on paper: high paying, all medical care and prescriptions paid for, free rent while she’s living in the small town. But the real job is being put through the paces of both medical and physical experimentation. She must lie to her family and friends about what she’s doing, sign an NDA stating that there will definitely be criminal and financial penalties for leaving the study early and for divulging just what goes on.

The experiments could be anything: eye drops to turn brown eyes blue (ahem, paging Auschwitz’s Dr. Mengele) or a pill that might cure dementia and chase depression away for good. Lena is given the usual medical spiel about her service in the experiments changing the world (and really, who doesn’t want to hear that they might be involved with something that could potentially change the world for the better?). But what Lena actually participates in is much darker in nature.

What follows is a dreamy novel where life becomes blurry, everything moves at a dreamlike speed, and a history laden with medical experiments on African Americans comes to the surface. The entire time I was reading this book (I seriously couldn’t put it down and would sneak a few pages in between answering work calls) I felt like I was floating through dark clouds, my body rotating as if in molasses, and looking down at a world scattered with unscrupulous monsters saying that the way to save humanity is by brainwashing children into killing their entire families and then writing a paper on it. Boom. That’s how you save the world.

If you want to read a novel where you have absolutely no idea where it’s going the entire time, Lakewood is the one. Even the ending has a dream-like quality that leaves you wondering what happened to this character who took a blue pill, had some kind of fit at her desk, and was whisked away never to be seen again. Lakewood is a thoroughly creepy book. But in a good way. Good creepiness and a terrible uneasiness abound in this novel. Go get it. And I don’t care how hard up for money you are, maybe you should stick to donating plasma and leave the “We can help you lose 80 pounds in 24 hours” experiments alone.