DNF: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

I am very tired of mental illness being used as a source of drama in literature--any literature, not just YA.  Turning a stigma into a quirk doesn't help people normalize it.  It's othering in the guise of literature, and I am sick and tired of it.

This is certainly not to say that people shouldn't write books with neurodiverse characters--far from it!  I'm criticizing the way that a mental illness or aneurotypical characters are treated within the framework of the story.  If your character has bipolar or autism or depression or an eating disorder just because then she has more to overcome or it makes for a better story: stop.  It's not a "fun story" to people who live with those illnesses; it's everyday life.  It's still having people tell you to "think positive" or "just eat more" or "just exercise" or "here, have some magical essential oils that will cure your anxiety." Yeah, no thanks.

I'm tired of mental illness being a trope.  It makes me angry.  It tells me that authors see my problems, and the problems and struggles of so many others, as something to capitalize on.  It tells me that my problem is only valid when it's experienced by cute teenagers who fall in looooove and have massive epiphanies about life, the universe, and everything.  Or people who die by suicide.

With such a preponderance of these formulaic stories, readers are becoming accustomed to the formula, and only want to read about mental illness as a sort of sidenote to the usual quirky-girl-meets-quirky-boy formula.  This makes me so angry.  I think a lot of readers echo the sentiments of one Goodreads reviewer, who wrote that she was looking forward to the bipolar "experience" in the "candy-coated shell of a good story."

I beg your pardon?

I'm not targeting this one reviewer; however, I find their sentiments indicative of those of the reading public as a whole.  "Ooooh look!  A book about *bipolar* people!  This should give me #allthefeels!" or "This story about depression will profoundly change my life.  Or at least make me ugly cry, which I can pretend means changing my life."

Mental illness in a book is a bit like having a talking animal: you're going to get nominated for awards and you'll probably win said awards because you are "so brave" for talking about these "difficult topics."  You know what?  Having a mental illness is part of being human.  Is it stigmatized?  Yes.  It shouldn't be, but it is.  But people who have depression or bipolar or who are ASD are not SO BRAVE to be living with it.  It's reality.

I feel like the pain I deal with everyday is just a way for neurotypical people to get their literary jollies.  I feel like my brother's life with bipolar would be seen as weird because it doesn't fit the mold of the oh-so-quirky-yet-bipolar protagonist of A Tragic Kind of Wonderful.  Aneurotypical people are not here for your amusement.

Perhaps I should talk about the book named in the title of this review now.  Very well.  It really isn't all bad.  I'm just tired of reading about mental illnesses as character quirks or because the author thought it would be interesting to write about.

Mel Hannigan is trying to get through the rest of high school without talking to her former friends Connor, Zumi, and Annie.  Mel is also bipolar, and tracks her moods using a system devised by her previous psychiatrist: Hamster, Hummingbird, Hammerhead, and Hanniganimal.  Each animal represents a different part of herself.  These animals and their corresponding descriptors appear at the beginning of each chapter to indicate how Mel is feeling.  This is such a literary conceit that it makes me want to vomit.  Oh, look at how cute!  She can track her moods with animals!  Tee-hee!

You know what?  Let me just hit the main points of the story that made me go "Nooooo!" with some of those awesome blog post workhorses: bullet points.

  • Mel's "cocktail" of medications includes "a quetiapine ... a tab of oxcarbezepine ... topiramate ... bupropion ... and a Ritalin cap ... Most of my cocktail is for stabilizing my moods but the Ritalin is to fix my thinking."  This litany of meds read strangely to me--Mel uses the generic names for everything except Ritalin.  If it helps, she's taking Seroquel (antipsychotic), Trileptal (anticonvulsant), Topamax (anticonvulsant), Wellbutrin (antidepressant), and Ritalin (stimulant).  I asked my mom, who's basically a pharmacist via real life training at this point, and she said this mix might cause a lot of ups and downs (but again, this all depends on the individual's brain chemistry) and that Mel's functionality would be impaired.  I do wonder whether Lindstrom consulted a psychiatrist who treats bipolar or not.  It is unacceptable if he did not.

    I'm also confused by the statement that Ritalin "fixes [Mel's] thinking."  Ritalin is basically speed, so it would make her more focused and energetic,  But I don't believe that one medicine can truly change the way you think.  It's an odd way to describe the effects of a medicine.  And if Mel is already tending to mania, why would she be taking Ritalin?  Obviously, again, everyone's brain is different and everyone's bipolar is different.  So Mel could conceivably do well with an upper.  But Adderall made my brother think that the streetlights were talking to him, so, you know.  
  • While on said "cocktail" of meds, Mel is able to successfully hold a job caring for elderly patients at a care facility and hide the fact that she has bipolar from all of her friends.  All of them.  This is so unbelievable that I don't even have the words to describe it.
  • Mel's Aunt Joan, aka Hurricane Joan, aka HJ, scolds her niece for taking all those drugs.  Note: this is realistic, but if teens are already unsure about meds, reading HJ's reasoning might make them think it's a good idea to stop.  I know that that's definitely not rational but we are not talking about rational here.  I've done it before even though I know it's really stupid.  We are treated to the usual suspects in med-bashing, like:
    • "You put more drugs in your system than Grandma did when she was fighting cancer!"
    • "They suck all the life out of you, like there's a wet blanket on you all the time."
  • Joan then encourages her niece to drink booze, which is a really really really bad idea considering her medication.  Well HELLO liver failure and also DEATH.
  • But it's okay, because Aunt Joan has the "happy sex-crazed kind of bipolar disorder, not the angry delusional kind."  Oh really.  Tell me more about this *better* bipolar.  Now with 200x more sex!
  • There's some really fun "I'm so diverse tee-hee!" moments.  Mel's new best friend Holly has a "storm cloud of kinky black hair."  Mel likes to touch it, and "other white girls have asked" to touch it and Holly's totally fine with that. 
  • Mel shames her aunt (remember, the "sex-crazed" one?) for wearing makeup.  She wants to tell her aunt "how beautiful she is without paint," because obviously wearing "paint" makes her less interesting? "real"?
  • Mel's dad is disgusted by his ex and their daughter eating "penne with generic-brand marinara sauce and garlic bread that's really toasted sandwich bread with butter and garlic salt."  Mel calls this meal "what we were reduced to eating," although it's a favorite.  Now, look here.  My family doesn't have money.  When I was a kid, that's how I liked my pasta.  No spicy sauces, just a nice jar of Prego (meat was preferable, but if we had to buy traditional, I'd still eat it).  Some Italian bread with butter and garlic salt.  What's so wrong with that?  I certainly never felt "reduced" to eating anything.  Not even if it wasn't some frou-frou sauce with exquisite gourmet garlic bread that was made from a sourdough starter stolen from Mario Batali.  It's a really classist remark.  I'm sure we are meant to attribute it to "Mel's bipolar," but that doesn't mean it needed to be said at all.
I'm sure a lot of people will love this story.  There are a few good things about it.  For example, when Mel is manic or hasn't taken her medication, she has these run-on sentences that just don't stop especially not for a comma because who cares about commas anyway I'm sure you don't not when you've skipped your meds to stay up all night to write a really important letter that was really hard to write because you didn't do anything wrong in the first place unless maybe you did.

You've made it all the way through this epically long review!  I couldn't see any way to make it shorter without cutting important points that bothered me.  The blurb compares this to It's Kind of a Funny Story, and I don't see that at all.  Part of it has to do with the #OwnVoices movement: It's Kind of a Funny Story was authentic because the author put so much of himself into it.  You could feel the pain.  With books written purely because an illness seems interesting or cool or "important" to an author, it's dangerous.  It's false.  And it's not getting my money.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


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  2. Illnesses do seem to be a popular fictional trope these days. Kids love reading them. Bipolar, cancer, eating disorder, whatever. They love them. And as you say, these books do tend to get awards and/or be turned into movies. I don't know why. But when I read something about an illness I would expect the author to have some experience of it, even if it's a family member, and to have done their research.

    And yes, newspapers - at least the Murdoch ones - do tend to use the word "brave" in a human interest story about a sick child. Why is the kid brave? Because he/she is sick. They also use words like "thug" automatically for kids who have got into trouble with the police. It's the Way of the Tabloid. ;-)

    1. I wonder if the uptick in illness-centered books has to do with the downturn in the economy and general awfulness of life. It's Schadenfreude in book form.


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