Farrar Straus Giroux, 2016
High school junior Morgan Grant can divide her life into two parts: Before and after the devastating events of October 15. Before, Morgan was a bright, popular athlete with a promising future, whose days were filled with friends, sun, sand, swimming and school. After, Morgan is a survivor of a deadly tragedy whose worsening anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder have caused her to become a shadow of her former self.
Traumatized by what she has experienced, terrified of a world she can neither control nor predict, and haunted by feelings of guilt and culpability for what has happened, Morgan’s agoraphobia worsens until she no longer is able to leave her family’s two-bedroom apartment and she seeks comfort in a familiar, daily routine filled with little more than soap operas, home schooling, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Underwater is a sincere, heartfelt exploration of mental illness and a topical, all too important reminder that the story does not end when the final shot has been fired and the cameras finished rolling. For some, the story has only just begun.
Morgan’s journey to recovery is a difficult one. This YA author offers no easy answers or simple solutions for Morgan’s agoraphobia, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather demonstrates the impressive mental and emotional labor and strength required to rediscover and remake oneself in the wake of a tragedy. Though Morgan’s progress is gradual and she often becomes frustrated with her missteps and failures along the way, Reichardt’s inherently charming and endearing protagonist is never presented as any less worthy of help, love or acceptance or as being beyond hope or recovery. Morgan is allowed to shine in other ways, most notable of which is evident in her devoted relationship with her single mother, a hard-working nurse, and her precocious younger brother, Ben, for whom she clearly cares deeply. Though the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s illness and the severity of what she suffers are arguably extreme, there’s little doubt that the essence of Morgan’s story – of being unashamed of one’s illness and working to better take care of oneself – will resonate with Underwater‘s readers, particularly those who also suffer from anxiety, as Morgan does.
There have been many novels written the about the subject of school shootings in recent years. Many writers have tried to make sense of an act that is, by its very nature, senseless, but what’s different about Underwater from its peers is its chosen focus. While other stories have focused largely on the psychology and motivation of the perpetrator or the details of the shootings themselves, debut author Marisa Reichardt instead chooses to focus on the devastating aftermath of such an event. Reichardt neither sensationalizes nor exploits this topic, instead offering a sensitive, empathetic portrayal of the repercussions of such a tragedy. In doing so, Underwater has the potential to act as a source of comfort for those who suffer from anxiety, agoraphobia and/or post-traumatic stress disorder and an excellent resource for readers who wish to better understand and empathize with those who do.
Underwater‘s synopsis does the novel a disservice in that it implies that Morgan’s recovery is mainly due to Evan’s appearance in her life. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. While a potential romantic relationship with Evan can provide Morgan with an additional incentive to pursue treatment and regain some semblance of normality, it is not the sole motivating factor in her recovery. Before Evan’s introduction, Morgan had already been undergoing treatment for her anxiety, agoraphobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder for four months. This treatment includes both the use of prescription medication and ongoing therapy with her psychologist, Brenda. Evan is not perfect–Evan grows frustrated and impatient with Morgan’s progress (or lack thereof) and is not always as supportive or as understanding as one might hope–but it’s to be commended that their blossoming romance is never presented as a solution to Morgan’s problems. There’s also something to be said for the strength and empowerment that can be drawn from a strong support system and the grandness in forming such a community. From her burgeoning relationship with Evan to her unconditional love for her mother and brother, Ben, Morgan has several positive relationships in her life from which she draws comfort and courage.
Underwater is a poignant, powerful, and ultimately uplifting and inspiring story of recovery and forgiveness that successfully attempts to lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness. It accomplishes this by providing readers with a positive and responsible portrayal of therapy and medication as effective tools in managing mental and emotional trauma and encouraging readers to embrace hope and possibility, even in the face of what might initially appear to be insurmountable obstacles. This YA novel is a genuinely kind and heartwarming narrative about triumph and love in the wake of adversity.