BOOK REVIEW: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
“We spoke yesterday but you might not recall. Do you know why you’re here?”
I twirl my finger around my left ear.
He smiles a little. “That doesn’t actually mean anything unless your purpose is just to offend people. What do you really mean?”
I don’t have to answer. He knows what I mean.
For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length.
I’ve heard people say only good friends can tease like we just did. I’ve never told anyone, but I don’t think talking this way is a reward. It’s an invitation, to skip over all the shaking hands and small talk nonsense and get on with the real stuff.
And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.
“My animals have minds of their own. They go up and down separately. When they’re all down at the same time, I’m depressed. When they’re all up together, I’m manic. Other times I’m Mixed. Like when the Hanniganimal is Down but my Hamster and Hummingbird are Running and Flying, I feel a dark, gloomy, anxious kind of manic energy.”
“Is that why you chose a Hammerhead for Health? Because it starts with a H? All your other animals seem to more closely match what they represent.”
“Oh…” I wince. “Not exactly. My Hammerhead is how good my body feels, not just weather I’ve caught a cold or something. Look back a couple weeks, when my Hammerhead was Slogging? I wasn’t actually sick. Those days with the red asterisks?”
Her eyes widen.
“Yeah. Shark Week.”
As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst–that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?
In A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, Eric Lindstrom, author of the critically acclaimed Not If I See You First, examines the fear that keeps us from exposing our true selves, and the courage it takes to be loved for who we really are.
Once again, Eric Lindstrom brings us a story that’s kinda cute and fluffy and is bound to make you laugh, but which has a decent helping of meatiness, too.
At first glance, there are some things that can seem a little shallow, and though it’s true that overall this feels like it has a little less heart than Lindstrom’s previous book, Not If I See You First, and the friendships feel a little less developed, there is still plenty here to love, and his second offering is one that is as easy to get caught up in as his debut.
One of the things that felt a little odd early on in the book was the fact that Mel, a self-described antisocial underachiever, seems to find it so easy to make conversation with people.
We’ve had this conversation countless times, when Mom’s not around to stop her. Except I know the drugs are a scapegoat. Like how Dad thinks I’m unambitious and unmotivated and blames it on being surrounded by underachievers. Aunt Joan thinks I’m antisocial because of the meds. They’re both wrong. I’m naturally an antisocial underachiever.
But perhaps this was part of the message of this book; just because they need time away from people in order to recharge, people with anxiety and other mental health disorders don’t always struggle in a way that is outwardly visible.
As the story goes on, and as Mel goes through different mental and emotional states, the writing reflects the different moods and energy. From how Mel thinks while having a manic episode; without pause, without breath, without filter.
Mom sits me on the sofa and I lie down and slide a throw pillow under my head but then she pulls me back up while Dr. Oswald hands me a couple of tablets and a coffee mug filled with water or just filled halfway actually and I think it should be funny because of how I only fill up cups halfway at work so residents won’t spill so it’s like I’m one of Dr. Oswald’s residents but it’s not funny because it just isn’t and I can’t really imagine anything being funny now when all I want to do is like down again so I do.
To how working out the right cocktail of medications can make her feel disconnected and calm, as though wrapped up in cotton wool.
I can stay here in this dreamy haze… like I’ve just woken up… barely awake… nothing to worry about… or think about… no reason to move… it’s a dream come true.
I have nothing here. That’s what I want. Nothing to do. Or worry about. Or think about. No one outside has to worry about me. I don’t know why I fought this. This is the only place I get everything I want. Nothing.
I can’t bear seeing anyone. I don’t want to stay locked up, but I also don’t want to leave this protected zone where it’s okay to be broken since everyone else is, too.
He also explores the ways in which people see mental illness, and the way they dismiss it.
“I want to help.”
I think a moment. Then I say, “Because I’m your friend.”
“Huh. Is that why you disappeared on me? And wouldn’t answer my texts. Or my calls. Or the door?”
“I was really sick.”
She blows air through her nose. “You couldn’t have been that sick.”
“You seem so… vanilla. I thought everyone was making a big deal over nothing, but bipolar disorder? Now I get why your feet are all gauzed up. Maybe you really do belong in here. Either that or you’re just another pathetic attention-seeking privileged white girl.”
As well as the different ways it can manifest and the things that can act as something of a catalyst.
Period hormones can trigger mood swings and push my symptoms especially hard, but so does regular old stress. Not just the bad kind, either. Dr. Jordan told me bipolar disorder doesn’t distinguish between anxiety and excitement. The cruel irony is how this can add up to feeling nothing but dark clouds because things went well yesterday.
When I told Dr. Jordan about this feeling, he said that in the most typical example of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, you might be afraid of germs, but washing your hands can make the obsession stronger. It might feel a bit better while you’re doing it, but it keeps you thinking about the germs, so you keep on scrubbing and scrubbing.
All in all this was a quick, fun, and at times emotional read that definitely has the Eric Lindstrom essence we were introduced to in Not If I See You First. While there were elements that felt a little watered down compared to his previous novel, this was an honest but not depressing (and not romanticised) story about mental illness. Eric Lindstrom remains a must read author for this reviewer, and I can’t wait to see what he does next!
HJ finishes her eyes and grabs a different eyeliner pencil. This is my favorite part. She hates her freckles – or, quote, her “blotchy face” – except she has a bare patch under her left cheekbone the size of a dime. She draws fake freckles on it to blend it in. It’s both wonderful and tragic.
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