Speculative Fiction is all about the question "What if?" It's about taking things that are unreal in our world and putting them somewhere that they can exist, with the words on the page or screen as the portal between worlds. Sometimes, the unreality of a situation lies not in the setting or the mythical creatures, advanced technology and magic, but rather in the perspective of the characters themselves. We call these characters "unreliable narrators" because what they tell us cannot be trusted as true. However, in many cases it's this unreliability that makes their stories so compelling and beautiful.
That's definitely the case in Made You Up a young adult novel by Francesca Zappia. Main character Alex is starting her senior year in high school. Years ago she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she's learned tips and tricks in addition to taking her medication that help her to differentiate between hallucinations and reality, like consulting a Magic 8 Ball at work, perimeter checks whenever she enters a room, and taking photos with her digital camera. If the questionable images are still there later when she looks at them, then they were real. She'll be attending a new high school, after a psychotic break and some unfortunate graffiti necessitated her leaving her old school. Alex is doing much better now though. She has a job as a waitress, she's applying to colleges, nobody at East Shoal High School knows her secret, and she even has a friend named Tucker. If she can just make it through this year, she'll be out. She'll be okay.
As part of her community service for her graffiti incident, Alex is placed in a student club that does volunteer prep work for East Shoal's athletic events. In charge of that club is Miles, a social outcast and possible evil genius who reminds Alex uncannily of her first hallucination when she was very young. Tucker warns her to stay away from Miles, but eventually their quirks bring them together. Between her sometimes overprotective mother, her younger sister Charlie, her coping mechanisms and the friendships she starts to develop, Alex thinks the year is going okay. But one night on the way home from a party she has a break in front of Miles. Her secret revealed, she's forced to depend on him more than she'd like to make sure her new school doesn't turn on her the way her old one did. In addition, one of the school's queen bees gets involved in the club and there's something strange going on with the principal and the school's athletic score board. Just when things should be getting better, with a "normal" life and "normal" high school issues, Alex starts to fall apart. She's used to being "crazy"; it's the normalcy that might make her unravel.
Zappia put together a really, truly wonderful novel about someone whose brain just doesn't work the same way as everyone else's, and how rewarding and difficult it can be to finally see some of their world meshing. But she also shows how difficult and frustrating it can be when a person has to ignore what their senses are telling them exists, like a phoenix that lives in your neighborhood or a boy who reminds you of your first hallucination. Alex's character is especially beautiful because it's the little everyday things that make her question her own sanity. She knows she has to be aware of her triggers and her surroundings, knows that some of what she sees isn't real and knows to take care of herself to avoid the same sort of incident that took place at her old school. But as the author points out (brilliantly, I might add) it's not always as easy as knowing that there isn't really a python hanging out of the school ceiling.
This book is the perfect blend of self-discovery and acceptance, young romance, mystery and tough stuff. It starts out as a journey of self-acceptance for Alex and morphs into a budding romance mixed with trying to figure out what's going on with a cheerleader queen and the creepy school principal, and what they have to do with Miles and the athletic club. The two main parts of the story morphed so wonderfully into one another though that it didn't feel like separate issues. Alex isn't the only one learning how she interacts best with the world around her; Miles and Tucker are evolving with her, as is her relationship with her family members. And the evolution doesn't follow a rote script; characters react to events as they unfold, leaves in a stream, instead of being the ones dictating what "should" happen next in the story.
I wasn't entirely satisfied with the end of the book. While I thought Alex made the right choice for her, it wasn't clear that she was the one in charge of what happened next in her life. And the confrontation with the principal seemed a little too black-versus-white, good-versus-evil for a book that did such a great job of blurring the lines between perception and reality. It made me feel like there are "good" kinds of mental illness and "bad" kinds, where in my experience with them there are really just different ways that they manifest. Some coping mechanisms and treatments are obviously much healthier than others, but nothing has inherent value; it's all about how a given person's brain works or doesn't in different situations.
Despite what I thought were shortcomings at the story's end, I enjoyed this book from start to finish. It's written with incredible voice and sensitivity, and what turns out to be real or imaginary in Alex's world isn't what you thought it would be. That's what makes this truly a realistic representation of what things are like for Alex and people like her who deal with different kinds of mental illness that impact their perception of reality. This is one of my favorite YA books to come out this year, and if you're looking for a spellbinding writing style with a main character who will really get under your skin and into your heart, pick up this book. It's witty, it's clever, it's funny, endearing, heartbreaking and encouraging by turns. In other words, it's the complete package and better yet it's available now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.
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