A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom (bought) - The heart-rending and inspiring novel from the critically acclaimed author of NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST.
How can you have a future if you can’t accept your past?
Mel Hannigan doesn’t have it easy. Mourning the death of her firework of a brother, trying to fit back into a school she’s been conspicuously absent from and struggling to deal with the loss of three friendships that used to mean everything. Struggling to deal with a condition that not even her closest friends know about.
So Mel tries to lock away her heart, to numb the highs and lows, to live quietly without hope – but also without pain. Until someone new shows her that it can be worth taking a risk, that opening up to life is what can make it glorious…
And that maybe, Mel can discover a tragic kind of wonderful of her very own. From Goodreads.
After loving Not If I See You First, I couldn't wait to read Eric Lindstrom's next novel, A Tragic Kind of Wonderful. And oh, what a beautiful book it is! I absolutely adored it!
Like with his previous book, Lindstrom covered a lot of different elements with Mel's story. What I've noticed with both his books is that as a genre, they can only really be described as contemporary, because they're not just one thing; neither are romance novels, neither are friendship novels, neither are "issue" novels - they're all of these things. It would be more accurate to describe both as "life novels", because they simply incorporate so many elements of life. Whose life ever really has one main focus at time? I guess the reason books tend to focus on one main element, one conflict, is because a book could get complicated and confusing if a lot was going on. I don't know how he does it, but with Lindstrom's novels, there's nothing complicated about these books except the lives of the characters.
In A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, we meet Mel, who is still struggling with her grief over her older brother Nolan's death, who died seven years previously. She has bipolar, but it only made itself known a little over a year ago. Although having bipolar has changed Mel's life, it's not a complete unknown as her brother had it, and her aunt Joan - who she and her mum live with - has it. Mel's parents are divorced, and she doesn't have the best relationship with her dad. She no longer speaks to her old friends after a massive argument before she was diagnosed with bipolar, and her new friends don't know about her mental illness. She works at a retirement home, Silver Sands, and has friends amongst the residents, and it's there that she and David, the grandson of a new resident, catch each other's eye. So, you see, there's a lot going on in Mel's life - and I love how realistic it made the book feel!
I've never really known too much about bipolar disorder. I've read two books previously that featured characters with bipolar; All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, but Finch was undiagnosed, and The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, where Nix's father, Captain Slate, has also has undiagnosed bipolar, but isn't a narrator, so we never get his perspective. And I've seen characters on TV who have bipolar when they're on their meds, where you wouldn't have guessed they had a mental illness at all, and when they're off them, where their mania is shocking - pretty stereotypical representations on the small screen. So I'd not come across a character who has had a diagnosis of bipolar and is being treated for it, that seemed realistic.
Now, I don't have bipolar, nor do I know anyone who has bipolar disorder, so I can't vouch for whether or not this book features good representation of a person with bipolar, but it was pretty obvious that a lot of research and thought was put into Mel's character, her treatment, and her choices. Mel does take medication for her bipolar, but that doesn't mean her bipolar doesn't affect her - like TV would try to lead me to believe. I'm not going to try and explain how bipolar affects the various parts of her, because I simply wouldn't be able to well enough, but A Tragic Kind of Wonderful does a great job of showing us that's it's not simply about being manic or depressed, nor that it's simply about what mood your in. I loved how Mel would make charts to record how she was doing, what her mood was like, how her head and heart were doing, and her overall health, and how for each she related it to animals and would use metaphors to describe how she was doing. I'm sure none of this makes sense to you reading this, but it will when you read the book. There's a whole lot more to bipolar than being up or down, and this was shown well at the beginning of each chapter with Mel's animals and how they were, and how things can go when her bipolar affects her more than usual.
What I also really loved was the conversations between Mel and Joan (or HJ as she liked to be called - Hurricane Joan) about medication. HJ was strictly against medication; she was of the opinion that it dulled her personality, and she was never really herself when she was on it, and she didn't believe Mel should be on medication either. Mel saw things differently; HJ had bipolar, but it didn't affect her as badly as it affected Mel, and when Mel isn't on the medication, she doesn't feel like herself, like she isn't grounded or in full control. It was really interesting to see how one person with bipolar didn't understand how another person with bipolar felt, that it affects people differently. HJ believed that the real you is who you are when you're off the meds, and that meds caged and controlled you, that Mel wasn't allowing herself to be her true self, but for Mel, they gave her stability. It was really interesting to see the two sides of the argument. There was no message here of medication is good, or medication is bad, it was showing us both views. The only shame is that HJ didn't really listen to Mel, and wouldn't accept that this was the right thing for her. But what the reader does see is that taking medication is what's right for Mel, and not taking medication is what's right for HJ. There's no judgement or preaching coming from Lindstrom; he shows the various arguments, but also that some people can be stuck in their beliefs.
There's one thing I absolutely have to mention, because it made me so happy! This is the first book I have read written by a male author that talks about periods in any real way. I've read other books written by men with female protagonists where periods don't come up, and books with male protagonists where they may get a slight mention, if at all, and it's normally with an "ew" attitude. Mel's periods have an affect on her bipolar, so they couldn't be left out, really, because when she was on her period everything went a little haywire for her. But even so, Mel's periods themselves - aside from how they affected her bipolar - were treated like no big deal; something normal that happens, that affected her, but just a part of life that she had to get on with. Not something shameful, or disgusting, or anything negative. There was even a point when Mel thought she might have got blood on her nightie, and oh my god, I may have done a little happy dance, because I've not even read something like that happening in a book written by a female author! This is a book that normalises periods, and I abso-bloody-lutely love Lindstrom for it!
This review is already incredibly long, and I've only discussed the mental illness side of things! But I think it works that I don't say too much about any of the other elements, because it's likely to get spoilery. I loved how this book showed how complicated friendship could be, how you don't necessarily like everyone in your friendship group. In her old group, Mel's group of friends consisted of her, Zumi, Connor and Annie, but she never really liked Annie. Annie wasn't the nicest of people, and she kind of controlled the group, but Zumi was in love with her, which is obvious to all from very early on, and would do whatever she wanted, and Mel thought of Zumi as her best friend, so would also go along with things, but could see how Annie treated all of them. Things come to a head when Mel calls her out on it. And soon after the big argument, Mel falls ill and is out of school for several weeks. She makes friends with Holly and her boyfriend Declan when Holly is assigned to collect work for Mel and give it to her, and those two seem like really great people, though we don't see too much of them. I loved the look at friendship dynamics, though, and how friendships, and even the end of friendships, can be a lot more complicated than you think.
I loved how diverse this book was! Zumi is attracted to women (though she never says how she identifies), and is Japanese-American, Holly is African-American, and David is Chinese-American. Mel's doctor, Dr. Oswald, is African-American. The residents she's friends with at Silver Sands also include people of colour; Ms. Li, David's grandmother, is also Chinese-American, Mr. Terrance Knight is African-American, and Ms. Arguello, a resident who isn't really a friend as she has dementia and forgets Mel everyday, but for whom Mel has a fondness for, is Latina. I loved seeing Mel with the residents at Silver Sands, and the genuine friendships she had with them, despite the age gap. It was lovely to see her love her job, and that she has such strong bonds with the people there. Dr. Jordan, another resident, used to be a psychiatrist, and so Mel talks to him a lot about her bipolar - he says she shouldn't, she should speak to her own doctor, but he can't help helping her when she comes to him for help. It was he who came up with the idea for the charts and the various animals to help her record how she was doing.
I think I should probably wrap this up now, though I've barely scratched the surface! A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is an incredible book and a really interesting one. There's so much that is going on here, so much that affects various relationships, it's unsurprisingly a pretty emotional book. I just loved this book, more so than Not If I See You First, and Lindstrom is now firmly on my auto-buy list. Give A Tragic Kind of Wonderful a read and see why he should be on yours, too.
Published: 29th December 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books
Eric Lindstrom's Website