Thursday, 19 May 2016

'Am I Normal Yet?' (Normal #1) by Holly Bourne

*This review will contain spoilers!*
'Mental health disorders have gone "mainstream". And for all the good it's brought people like me who have been given therapy and stuff, there's a lot of bad it's brought too. 
Because now people use the phrase OCD to describe minor personality quirks. "Oooh, I like my pens in a line, I'm so OCD."
"Oh my God, I was so nervous about that presentation, I literally had a panic attack."
"I'm so hormonal today. I just feel totally bipolar."
16-year-old Evie has just started college. She's excited to reinvent herself, hoping she'll finally be able to lead a life deemed 'normal'. For the past three years Evie's been suffering from debilitating OCD and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but she's finally starting to reduce her medication and she's certain she's back on track to live a regular life.
Within the first few days at college she meets Ethan: smart, funny, adorable, and - most importantly - interested in her. She's sure this is going to be the start of something, because all normal teenagers have boyfriends! It proves that she's definitely not mad anymore. Her best friend, Jane, has abandoned her for rock star boyfriend Joel, and Evie deserves someone after everything she's been through. She invites him to Anna's party, filled with hope... If a little nervous.
However, Ethan turns up completely wasted, embarrasses her in front of all of her friends and - most charmingly - sleeps with the host. It's at this party that Evie reacquaints herself with Lottie, her best friend from primary school, and meets Amber; their blossoming friendship means that the night wasn't a complete waste of time, and it takes her mind off of Jane's abandonment. Normal teenagers have a group of great friends.
After Ethan, you'd think Evie might be a little hesitant about getting feelings for someone else; that's before she meets sweet but shy Oli in her film studies class. She really likes him, but his nerves mean it's months before he asks her out... Then he turns up to the cinema with his parents. Evie's understandably freaked, but it soon dawns on her that Oli must suffer from anxiety too, so there's no way that their relationship could work out: 'it would be like two alcoholics dating each other'. Anna's hosting another party and Evie had planned to invite Oli along; instead she leaves him with his parents, goes to the party and takes many more sambuca shots than she probably should.
It's when she's practically passed out in Anna's back garden that Guy appears. He lifts her up, finds a place for her to be comfortable and makes her eat toast and drink water to help sober her up. Despite the fact that he's a stoner and the lead singer of Joel's band, Evie can feel a spark between them, and Guy was just so considerate that she's sure he must like her too...
But when they're back at college the next week, Guy is acting like nothing happened. She'll message him and then he won't reply. He'll be very hot one minute - staring intensely at her, confirming she'll be at his band's gig - and the next minute it'll be like Evie doesn't exist. When she's walking home one day, she taps each lamppost, certain that if she does Guy will message her back. He doesn't, but Evie's certain that just means she did it wrong... Maybe each post needed two taps, four, six? But touching the lampposts is dirty, so she'll definitely need to wash her hands when she gets home. If she didn't wash them right first time, does it really make a difference if she washes them twice? Maybe once more, just to be safe - she doesn't want to get sick, because dirty hands could make you very ill, maybe so ill that you might die...
Evie knows that her OCD is coming back with a vengeance, because she gets stuck in her rituals and can't break them even when she knows she should. But she can't tell anyone about it: her therapist Sarah and her parents have been so proud of her reducing her medication, and if she has a relapse it proves she'll be ill forever. She'll lose Lottie and Amber: who would want to be friends with a crazy person? And Guy definitely wouldn't be interested in her, no matter how sweet and considerate he is. Evie needs to be normal - or fake normal convincingly - or she knows she'll lose everything...

I loved this book.
I've read so many YA books focusing on mental health that haven't tackled the subject of relapse, and I think it's about time we had someone talking about what happens when the bad things happen again. Instead of following Evie's first struggle with her OCD, we're joining a character who knows all about her illness and is aware of what is happening to her - there's no confusion, she's certain about it even if she isn't able to tell anyone and get the help she needs.
It might be scary for young sufferers to read, but it's authentic. Relapse is something that happens quite regularly, and the fact that it's so poorly portrayed could make people who do eventually relapse feel as though they're weak for not being able to overcome the issue first time around: I can imagine it being extremely comforting to read about a character who also struggles with a re-occurrence.
When Evie develops feelings for Guy, she ponders this to herself:
'I'd kissed him and not freaked out about germs. Was that love? When I was with him I forgot about rituals. Maybe love was the answer? Maybe if I slept with Guy and fell in love it would mend me, as love always mends everyone?'
I was so pleased that Holly Bourne tackled this stereotype and flipped it on its head - Guy isn't the one that saves Evie, he's actually the one that pushes her completely over the edge. Too often a guy comes in, sweeps the broken girl off her feet and puts her back together in the blink of an eye: that doesn't happen much in real life. It just gives people suffering with mental illnesses another unreachable goal to aim for - if they can just find true love, they'll be all better! I hate that trope with a passion. I think Evie's sister Rose summed it up perfectly: "you've got to love you before worrying about anyone else loving you".
Then there's the Spinster Club. Evie, Amber and Lottie decide to reclaim the word 'spinster' and make it cool rather than derogatory. When they have their club meetings they hang out and discuss all the things wrong with the patriarchal world: the fact that women have to pay tax on tampons and sanitary towels, the fear surrounding periods, the statistics of mental health that are damaging towards both women and men.
"I don't want to be tied down. I hate that. That they think girls are just obsessed with having relationships. What do they want us to do? Shag them but not expect anything in return?"
"Er, yeah, basically," Lottie answered.
"No, that's not right either," I said. "They call those girls sluts." They nodded in agreement.
"So we're damned if we do, damned if we don't, basically?"  
Overt feminism in a YA book? Yes please. If I hadn't already been a feminist, this would have been the book that pushed me into it. You don't need to have prior knowledge, because things like the Bechdel test, the Madonna-whore complex and blatant vs. benevolent sexism are explained so simply. This book will be a great gateway into feminism for a lot of young people. Too often feminism is slammed in the media for being the realm of the elderly, the unattractive, the undesired - the fact that Evie, Lottie and Amber are young, intelligent and attractive will give young people feminist role models to aspire towards (if they aren't already in love with Emma Watson!).
The Spinster Club also reminded me a lot of the book 'Spinster' by Kate Bolick - I highly recommend it, if you're interested in non-fiction feminist memoirs.
A lot of the book is focused on romantic relationships but, because there's so much going on with the strong female friendships and the spiralling OCD, it's part of a much greater whole. It makes sense to have so much focus on it, though, because relationships are such a core part of feeling like a normal teenager (even if they really aren't good for you!).
There are another two books in the series ('How Hard Can Love Be?' which was released in February, and 'What's a Girl Gotta Do?' coming out later in the year) and those books focus upon Amber and Lottie respectively - I'm looking forward to reading them and interacting with these characters more. There's a lot of unanswered questions in this first book, and I'm looking forward to getting the answers.
If you want to read an empowering feminist book focusing on the struggle of mental health as a young person and the importance of family and friends, I couldn't recommend this any more highly.  

No comments:

Post a Comment