This was one of those books where I wrote a kind of rubbish, half-hearted review on Goodreads with the intention of improving it the next day or when I’d had time to think about it, and then didn’t, and now here I am a month and a half later trying to remember literally anything about the book in order to fix the mess I left, but failing.
Damn you, past!me. Write better book reviews, will you?
The impression I’m getting from what I did write at the time, though, is that I found this book difficult to review because I didn’t know what I felt about it. It reminded me of something else I’d read, but I can’t remember what — a frustrating situation, as comparisons usually make for comprehensible reviews. I can’t even pinpoint exactly what the similarity was (tone? subject matter?). I know. Useless.
A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is about a girl with bipolar disorder recovering from her brother’s death, a fact which is only teased out slowly throughout the story despite being mentioned on the blurb. The reader therefore knows what she’s hinting at, but doesn’t know exactly what happened or how until nearly the end of the book. This allows you to join all sorts of dots, then rejoin them when you realise you were wrong about what picture they were forming, and eventually they create something that’s not quite either of those pictures.
Actually, it does that with other events in the book, too, telling the story in reverse or at laest in a slightly back-to-front manner. It’s a bit confusing to start with: who are these friends of Mel’s? Who are the others? What happened between them? Who is anyone? It gets clearer quickly if you keep reading, and the charaters are mostly distinct enough to avoid confusion or overlap between them, which helps, too.
For a book about mental illness, this did a remarkable job of making me feel things without making me cry. Maybe that was because I don’t have bipolar, so it wasn’t as painfully relatable as some, or because the meds I was on at the time made crying kind of difficult (since coming off them I’m basically a waterfall). Aspects of it still spoke to me, as anxiety and depression and an obsessive creative brain like combining to make similar, if milder, symptoms. But obvisouly I can’t speak on the accuracy or sensitivity of the portrayal the way somebody who actually has bipolar could. It taught me a few things I didn’t know, though, and introduced me to some new terminology.
The blurb makes this sound like it’s romantic and I guess that’s not inaccurate — there is a love interest, but it’s far from the trope I feared, which is the horrible “person meets love of their life and is cured of all their problems” one. Not only is friendship portrayed as just as important and significant as romance, but there is also no magical cure for Mel’s bipolar — only gradual recovery to a point where she can cope. I think that’s something to appreciate in a story like this.
There were, however, a few elements I didn’t like. Those included Mel’s aunt Joan, known as HJ (Hurricane Joan). I liked her at first, but she began to bother me — her insistence that Mel was wasting her teenage years by being unscoiable, that she should go on dates, that she shouldn’t text a boy first but should wait for him to text…
I mean, maybe it’s because I’m unsociable and queer, but that smacked of the heteronormative, as well as the generally frustrating attittude of a world built for extroverts. And the book generally isn’t like that — for a start, there are queer characters, even if they’re not having a lot of luck in their relationships. Joan even improves a bit, I guess, but those aspects bothered me.
Particularly the ‘don’t text a boy first’ thing. I mean, really? We’re going to be that old-fashioned now? Maybe this is still a thing among straight people, but it seems hugely archaic to me. Take the initiative, kid. Communication is important; don’t turn it into a power play.
On the whole, though, this was engaging and emotional enough to drag my attention away from the cat looking imploringly at me while I read and ate dinner. She wanted my potato. It wasn’t easy to make sure she didn’t take it and read at the same time, but I succeeded.
So, how to rate this? I don’t know. Maybe I’d give it three stars, but it’s not easy to distract me from Nellie when she’s being cute, so let’s go with four.