Thank you to Tin House Books for the free finished copy for review. All opinions are my own.
“You lose somebody perfect, then. Then you come back and tell me what’s normal.”
This novel is a look at Jeannie Vanasco’s downward spiral through mental illness, spurred by the grief she experiences when her father passes away. Vanasco struggles to maintain normalcy – attending college, dating, checking in on her mother – in between hospital stays, continual adjustments to her medications, her overwhelming grief, and an obsession with her half-sister’s death (who died years before she was even born, but happens to be her namesake). (Read Goodread’s synopsis here.)
I found myself torn throughout this entire book. At times, Vanasco’s mental illness seemed very obvious, and while some people seemed to recognize it, nobody – including doctors – seemed to take it seriously enough to actually help her! Reminiscent of Imagine Me Gone, it felt like the doctors simply tried to put a bandaid on the problem instead of figuring out the underlying causes. They’d either add a medicine, up the dosage, or ignore her requests. Even when she’d directly complain about her medications, her concerns were ignored. This broke my heart for Vanasco and infuriated me at what seems like on increasingly common problem with our medical establishment. Overmedicating a person and then sending them off into the world is not helping anyone. And it makes me wonder how many people are wandering around streets buried under layers of various pill’s side effects screaming to be let back out.
Of course Vanasco’s grief is on the more extreme side of the scale, but after losing my own mama to cancer, I can attest to the whirlwind of emotions it sends you into. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, times I no longer felt like living on this Earth anymore. I felt consumed with wondering where my mama was now, if she was still with me, and if she could still hear me…all of those things (and more) made me feel, at times, as if I was losing my mind. In the book, I couldn’t figure out why, even though her boyfriend and mom could see her struggling enough to suggest she go to a doctor, nobody ever mentioned grief counseling to Vanasco? It’s like everybody pawned her off to an impersonal hospital but nobody thought to come alongside her and walk with her. And that frustrated me so much for her. I wanted to turn the hands of time backwards so I could just be there for her – someone to hold her hand, listen to her, and let her cry when she needed to. Her love for her father ran so deep and when he died, she was left alone emotionally.
I appreciated the underlying themes of the book, but the discombobulated way Vanasco organized her thoughts became a big distraction for me after awhile. I get that it all made sense to her, but as a reader it interrupted the flow and began to annoy me. Also, I didn’t love the repetitive nature of the writing. Again, it just became an annoying hindrance to my reading experience. Last, this book ended without giving me any sort of hope. I believe the reader is supposed to feel like Vanasco overcame her grief and got her life back on track, but I don’t. I actually worry that she is in a healthy enough mindset to function in her daily commitments.
Grief is one of the hardest things I’ve had to navigate in my life. There isn’t a moment that goes by that you’re not reminded of your loss. I am so sympathetic to the pain that Vanasco feels, and after reading this, I’m so grateful that I had such a great support network that kept me from falling into the despair she experienced. Her pain is raw and her portrayal of her experiences is honest. If the reader can get past the author’s disjointed writing style, there’s a lot to be learned about mental illness and grief.