Mel Hannigan is nearly 17 years old and has rapid cycling bipolar disorder with mixed states. Her elder brother, who also had mental illness, died not that long ago, and she does not want to think about it. She calls her ability to avoid painful thoughts her superpower, but she eventually learns that she needs to process what happened. It's only near the end of the story in a dramatic final scene that we find out how her brother died.
A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is an unusual YA novel in its depiction of a young woman with bipolar disorder. She has been diagnosed and she is taking a carefully arranged balance of medication that keeps her behavior within the bounds of normal. But she isn't dealing with the past or talking about her understanding of her life, and the main message of the book is that Mel has engage with her emotions if she is going to survive.
Frequently Mel writes down an unusual self-assessment, making charts of her states of Hamster (thinking), Hummingbird (energy levels), Hammerhead (physical health) and Hanniganimal (mood). So she has striking self-insight in some ways, and she is mostly willing to take her meds. But doing all this does not solve the issue of confronting her brother's death.
She has other problems too, mostly with her close friends from school. Her relationships are turbulent, and there is a lot of drama. Her small group of friends are either totally close or busy hating each other. Maybe it's a realistic depiction of how things go for some young women, but it's tiresome. Mel hasn't told her friends she has a mental illness, and she has to grapple with how real her friendships are if she is concealing such an important fact about herself.
Mel's family has its own problems, unsurprisingly. Her parents are divorced, and her aunt HJ lives with Mel and her mother. HJ works in a bar, and has a chaotic life, which is also related to her problems with mental illness. HJ is a sort of anti-role model for Mel, but at the same time Mel has a good relationship with her aunt, who can provide her with a different perspective from her mother or psychiatrist.
One of the nice parts of the novel is Mel's part time job at a residential home for seniors. It brings out the responsible part of her personality, and she is recognized as a helpful person. She likes the residents and they like her. She also meets relatives of the residents, and she relates to them differently from her school friends and her family. Talking with older people is a contrast with the frenetic discussion she has most of the rest of the time.
The novel has a long sequence where Mel goes through a manic state, with distorted thinking and many bad decisions. It's a difficult task to convey the experience of mania, and maybe she comes across as too rational. The scenario seems a little forced, visually dramatic as if meant to be turned into a movie. But it is an easy read with realistic dialog and well-crafted relationships. It also covers issues of sexuality and sexual identity in a sophisticated way. So A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a significant contribution to YA literature on mental illness.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring is Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry.