A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom – terrible name, pretty good book. Fair warning: there will be some spoilers.
For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.
As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst—that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?
Let’s start off with the bipolar representation, shall we? Some of my loved ones and close coworkers have bipolar disorder, however, I am not bipolar myself. So, please don’t take my word as gospel. Personally, I thought that the representation of bipolar disorder was good – I’ve never seen the experience of dysphoric mania represented in a book before, let alone openly labelled and addressed. (Dysphoric mania is the experience of depression and mania at the same time. Go here for more information.) The very fact that it is raised as a potential experience is a good thing, I think.
I also really enjoyed Mel’s individual way of tracking her thoughts, feelings, and moods. She breaks it down into animals:
- Hamster = head
- Hummingbird = heart
- Hammerhead = health
- Hannigan Animal = mood + combination of the others
It really explains how she can be both manic and depressed – three of the animals may be manic, but one other depressed. Each chapter opening uses these animals to break down how Mel is feeling. With a character who is experiencing such rapid mood cycles, this worked incredibly well.
However, I had some problems with Mel as a character. In Chapter 1, line 1, she expresses the urge to touch her friend Holly’s hair. Holly is black, and apparently Mel’s urge to touch her is okay because ‘other’ white girls have asked. Mel really sets herself up as one of those ‘but I’m not like other white people’ allies, and that annoyed me immensely. She also is incredibly closed-off. I know that the book is all about her learning how to open up to people and talk about her bipolar disorder, but I did get annoyed with her at times. That’s a personality thing, though – I’m such an open person about my mental health that I almost can’t imagine what it would be like to never mention it.
I also am not quite sure about the representation of bisexuality in A Tragic Kind of Wonderful – if any other bisexual people have read it, please let me know your thoughts! Basically, with the help of her psychoanalyst, Mel comes to the realisation that she is bisexual. In one scene, her psychoanalyst says:
“Bisexual doesn’t mean equal attractions. You could be on the edge of the spectrum where you might not think about it. Like you’re eighty percent into boys and only twenty percent into girls, so you don’t notice the less intense impulses compared to the strong ones. Then a manic episode magnifies everything, enough to boost a feeling of I want to spend time with that pretty girl into the more intense feeling of I want to kiss that pretty girl.”
That bit I adored, because this is a part of bisexuality that I think a lot of people don’t know about, and one that I’ve experienced. However, Mel’s bisexuality is only expressed when she is having a manic episode, and becoming hypersexual. While I know this is a common part of manic episodes, the fact that it is so clearly linked to bisexuality was a bit annoying for me. A huge stereotype of bisexuality is that we’re all sex fiends, and I think this representation kind-of continued that stereotype. If perhaps we were given another bisexual character, who perhaps is in a steady relationship, that would have been helpful. But because Mel is the sole bisexual character in the novel, she unfortunately becomes the poster child for all bisexual people everywhere.
Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning – I hate the name of this book. Having bipolar disorder doesn’t mean that Mel is living a ‘tragic’ life! While ‘A Tragic Kind of Wonderful’ does kind-of imply the rapidity of her ups and downs, I think the same effect could have been created with a title that didn’t imply that.
I know that I’ve written a lot in this review about the issues I had with A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, but overall I did honestly enjoy it, and I thought that the representation of bipolar disorder was one that is rarely seen in YA fiction, and desperately needed.