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Review of A Semi-definitive List of Worst Nightmares

A Semi-definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

What it’s about: 

From the author of Our Chemical Hearts comes the hilarious, reality-bending tale of two outsiders facing their greatest fears about life and love—one debilitating phobia at a time. Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can’t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.

The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.

Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.

Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she’d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.

Buying the book: I got this when I was in Philly because (as we all know) you can’t pass a Barnes and Noble without going in. And then once you’re in, you can’t leave without buying a book… or three…

I was drawn to the quirky, funny title and the promise of exploring fear/phobias, especially as part of my quest to read more mental health YA books, both since my latest manuscript, Starvation, tackles eating disorders, and because I think literature is a great way to pass around accurate information on a topic that isn’t often talked about (or at least not in the right ways). Thus, having accurate information in these books is especially crucial and so reviewing them is important.

Also, for anyone studying clinical psychology or neuroscience like myself, having more experiential accounts of disorders, rather than dry lists of symptoms helps me understand each disorder better, how it feel to suffer, and ultimately, what might help alleviate the illness. This is great, too, if you know of someone (friend, family, etc) suffering and want to learn more about what it might be like, beyond symptomology. In fact, I think this book does a great job describing the physical sensations of panic/phobia/fear.

My review:

One thing I love about this book is that it talks about phobias in the way they should be talked about– as something that can be overcome. In fact, from my neuroscience background I know that anxiety, and especially phobias, are the easiest of any mental illnesses to treat. Also, treatment is done the same way Ester does it in the book– exposure.

(Although, granted, for some phobias rather than just fears, one might need more of a lead-up to exposure in order to prevent panic attacks and the like, as it happens in one instance where Ester becomes physically ill from panic and this reinforces/should have reinforced her fear).

Normally, I do not like magical realism. I like magic and I like contemporary literature but when the lines between them are blurry I struggle with it. Having said that, this was the most successful use of the two that I have yet read (although the classification of this book is less cut-and-dry– I’m not sure if its magical realism or what, but for once I don’t mind). In part, it helps mirror the Solar family’s feelings of inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or dangerous and anxiety-producing.

The writing is funny and captivating. The concept is original but captures important (and accurate) information about mental illnesses, including the common abstraction of them as something supernatural or above human control. In this way, while the content is hard to read about, the way in which it is approached is both factually accurate and, in many ways, emotionally accurate.

Jonah’s affection for Ester was refreshing in that it was based on friendship first, but also aspects deeper than appearance– ie respect, admiration, humor, etc.

I did have some issues with the way the parents handled the kids mental illnesses, with how the ability to make the fear worse through exposure wasn’t explored, how Ester was forced to be the head of the household (especially at the end just because her mental illness was more under control/overcome and/or because she was caring enough to give her mom money for things like appliances), and how Jonah’s stealing was glorified (even if, to some degree, justified by his situation).

I keep going back and forth on Ester’s ending, too. I think, however, it fits well and I like it as a whole. Perhaps I would have liked for her to have some passion or goal in addition to what she got, but this feels fitting.

All in all, though, I thought this was a really great book. Well written. Good coverage of mental illness, especially phobia and exposure. A love plot that felt realistic and genuine. Family ties that were honest but close. Sympathy for those struggling with mental illness while still offering agency towards treatment. If you like magical realism or books that have magical elements, definitely check this book out. 

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