Review: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland + a Discussion on Mental Health Depiction in Fiction

Summary: Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather met Death, her entire family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime—a fear that will eventually lead each and every one of them to their graves. Esther’s managed to escape the curse…so far. She doesn’t yet have a great fear because she avoids pretty much everything.

Esther thinks she has it all figured out, until she’s reunited with an old elementary school classmate—and first crush—Jonah Smallwood. The encounter is the beginning of an unexpected friendship between the two, one that sends the pair on a journey of self-discovery as they try to break the curse that’s consumed Esther’s family. Together they face their greatest fears, one debilitating phobia at a time, only to discover the one fear they hadn’t counted on: love.

Genre: young adult, contemporary
Rating: ★★★★

Worst Nightmares will not be a book for everyone. It’s quirky, uncomfortable (there was one scene that flared up some anxiety in me), and extremely heavy. This book covers mental health, death, illness, abusive homes, and so much more. And yet, it still finds a way to be charming in its own right, with scenes that made me smile and a romantic plot that appeases a certain crowd. And of course, the overall message will absolutely rip your heart right out of your chest. This was an emotional rollercoaster, and I felt my heart break repeatedly for these characters.

**this review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS**

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it. Our main character, Esther, is weird. She repeatedly mentions that she was bullied for looking strange; her best friend is a mute ghost of a girl who she thought was a figment of her imagination for a while; she dresses up as different characters every day; and her family is strange.

Esther believes her family has a curse set upon them, that whatever they fear most will kill them. Her grandfather was afraid of water, so he never went near it again. Her father suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t left the basement in years. Her twin brother is afraid of the dark, so he puts tape over the light switches and has lamps and candles everywhere. Her mother is afraid of bad luck, so she buys into the idea of a magical goblin in the form of a rooster and spends all the family’s money gambling.

The obvious question here is how much is too much? Is Sutherland exploiting mental health problems for the sake of a story or is she trying to be inclusive in her narrative? Initially I felt overwhelmed by Esther and her family, because it seemed unbelievable that all of these people could have such intensely powerful phobias. There is a bit of magical realism in this story, so it could be chalked up to that, but then it still feels like Sutherland just picked the most extreme mental illnesses and stockpiled them into one story. However, as the story unravels and we start to see more of these characters in depth, I couldn’t help but empathize with them. They’re severely mentally ill, and none of them are getting the help they need.

The hardest part was seeing how Esther’s parents’ mental illnesses were affecting the entire family. At one point, Esther’s mom loses all of their money, so Esther and Eugene are starving, and their mom doesn’t even realize the severity of the situation because she’s so trapped by her own demons. While Esther is angry and disappointed in her parents for ultimately failing as parents, she still finds it within her to understand what’s happening to them and love them regardless. That isn’t an easy thing for a child to do.

Esther’s plan throughout the book is to overcome her fears with a newfound friend, Jonah. This is a cutesy idea, and there are plenty of funny scenes throughout. Jonah constantly forces Esther out of her comfort zone, whether it’s by going on a cave tour, sitting in a graveyard at night, or acting out Romeo and Juliet with lobsters. Jonah also has his own demons at home, which Esther discovers, and I found that the two really complimented each other well. However, I don’t know that I bought into their friendship turning romantic. It didn’t seem believable or even necessary. There was already so much going on in this story that a romantic plotline bordered on overkill. Jonah and Esther could have remained a solid platonic duo, and I would have been happy with that. I will admit there are some intense and powerful lines about love and relationships because of this, though.

“Everyone we let into our lives has the power to hurt us. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t, but that’s not a reflection of us, or our strength. Loving someone who hurts you doesn’t make you weak.”

I went back and forth on whether I loved the family curse idea and the touch of magical realism here. Similar to Esther’s relationship with Jonah, I felt that sometimes it was almost too much. There were so many other bigger situations happening, and in the midst of everything Esther would share another part of the story of the family curse. It’s an interesting story on its own, but had it been completely left out of the book, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

While I did enjoy this book, there’s one big reason I didn’t rate it five stars. After finishing this book, I watched a video essay called The Complex Problems with Mental Illness in Fiction (highly, highly recommend watching). My biggest takeaway was that stories that include mental illness are written for two audiences: those with and those without an understanding of mental illnesses. In stories where the characters magically get better or their illness is “cured” easily, even through means like medication or therapy, the audience without an understanding of mental illness finds this to be a happy ending. The conflict of the story is the mental illness, and the story ends when the character is “over” it. For the opposite audience, these stories can seem like a slap in the face, bordering on insulting, because they know mental illnesses do not just magically go away. They know their mental health doesn’t just blossom because it was romanticized and they met the love of their life (Twilight is one of the examples referenced in the video).

So where does Worst Nightmares fit into that way of thinking? Esther’s twin brother, Eugene, comes off as quirky throughout most of the book. He leaves candles lit everywhere, doesn’t sleep at night, seems to literally disappear for long periods of time. There’s a scene where Esther sees his self-harm scars, which is the first time we truly become aware of how serious Eugene’s illness is. Toward the end of the book, Eugene attempts suicide. He lives, and in the hospital he makes jokes about his attempt. The story wraps up with Eugene finding solace in new therapy sessions, their father has finally left the basement, their mom’s mental health blossoms because she has her husband back, and Esther and Jonah make up and their relationship is great.

For someone without their own mental illnesses, this comes off as a great, refreshing ending to an otherwise depressing story. Everyone gets a happy ending – but how realistic is that? How fair is it to skip ahead and not give any focus or attention to the recovery aspect of mental health? We see Eugene going to therapy (with Esther joining the sessions), but what about their parents, who also clearly need it? We feel obligated to assume their family goes back to being a happy, healthy, normal dynamic, but it’s equally fair to assume Esther and Eugene hold a lot of anger and resentment toward their parents for not doing their job to take care of their kids.

We don’t see any of this resolution, which is common when mental illness is written in fiction. Ordinary People is a prime example of the opposite. The main character struggles, going in waves of emotion, realizing therapy might not be working the way it’s expected to. So what’s the difference between books like Worst Nightmares and Ordinary People? While Worst Nightmares touches on serious subjects and sheds light on mental illness to its targeted young adult audience, it’s ironically afraid of ever going deeper than that.

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