Book review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

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. 

Book review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Dial Books, 2016

Agoraphobic sixteen-year-old Solomon Reed has not left his house in three years due to acute anxiety, crippling panic attacks, and agoraphobia, but Lisa Praytor is determined to change that by beating his illness and saving Solomon from himself—and to write a scholarship-winning essay based on the results, which Solomon knows nothing of the sort. Lisa remembers the day in eighth grade when Solomon stripped to his underwear and got into a fountain as a result of a panic attack. But he isn’t depressed, strange, angry, excessively shy, or any of the other negative qualities characters with mental illnesses receive in literature. Instead, Solomon is a funny and compassionate young man who loves his family and friends

So, with the help of her boyfriend Clark, who Solomon ends up crushing on, Lisa enters Solomon’s world in order to observe him for her essay which will get her to university on scholarship and out of suburban California. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they’d be, and when their facades fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse, as well.  This story shines with how the characters handle the aftermath of such a ludicrous intention as armchair psychology to cure mental illness.

This book provides a human look at mental illness and how we need to treat those who have mental illness as people first. The hilarious, heartwarming, skillfully told coming of age story alternates between Lisa and Solomon’s witty, bantering voices. Solomon’s grandmother who’s his best friend, is portrayed with youthfulness and quirkiness which adds a fresh tone to the novel. It’s a quirky and endearing character portrayal that explores the intricacies of friendship, trust, and identity, in addition to mental health issues.

Book review: How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

HarperTeen, 2017

How To Disappear protagonist, Vicky Decker, suffers from “absurd shyness,” “self-consciousness,” and introversion. The fun, rousing read starts with her friend Jenna, who kept her safe from social circumstances, moving away, leaving her utterly friendless and nearly agoraphobic. Vicky employs her savvy with digital media to craft the persona of the confident, socially adventurous person she’d like to be.

This depiction of yoyeuristic isolation of social media is a way to understand more the inner thoughts of people who are suffering from being judged or/and afraid of attention. When I read this book, the familiar feeling is not easy to approach because of the amount of uncomfortableness that the main character went through. Basically she is afraid of calling attention to herself and being laughed at and judged.

I really enjoyed this book because it is very relatable, since everyone has a moment in their life where they just want to disappear and not care about anything else. However, as you keep on reading, you’ll eventually find happiness when she finally feels a bit encouraged and connected with others. The novel had great characters, high drama, suspenseful chapters and its realistic fiction also seemed like a thriller.

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