CM . . . . Volume XX Number 3 . . . . September 20, 2013
In this laugh-out-loud funny, must-read novel, 15-year-old Adam Ross meets 16-year-old Robyn Plummer at their OCD support group meeting where he falls instantly, irrevocably, deliriously in love with her. But first there is the little matter of his mother's hoarding compulsion and the threatening letters she's receiving telling her to commit suicide. Then there's his four-year-old step-brother Wendall, aka Sweetie, whose anxieties rival Adam's, and who can only be relieved by Adam's presence. Of course as a child of divorced parents, Adam shuttles between two households and keeps his mother and stepmother from hurting each other while trying to connect with a generally absent father. And can Adam support the members of his OCD group so that none of them go off the rails? As he juggles his meds, strives to control the rituals he must perform to go through doorways, and attempts to suppress the counting rituals that are sometimes his only hope of staying calm, Adam's pain ratchets up and up. When his mother accidentally starts a fire in the kitchen, one of the other boys in the support group helps Adam rescue her and get help for her. His father and stepmother gather him up and provide a safe haven while his mother goes to the hospital.
As Adam finds out from psychiatrist group leader Dr. Charles Mutinda, or Chuck as the group participants call him, everybody lies. Adam lies to everyone about his mother's health, and Robyn lies about how her mother died. The question is, how does lying support you? Or is it better to find someone to whom you can tell the truth so that a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders? Robyn learns this lesson faster because she has Adam's support while Adam can't get past the shame of OCD and the terror that his mother will never get better. As Adam's world comes crashing down, he also begins to understand that the other members of the group love and support him, that Chuck is there for him always and that maybe, just maybe, Robyn will continue to love him.
Adam is an engaging main character whose good works supporting everyone are balanced with his self-deprecating inner talk. He embodies the sex-driven 15-year-old boy to the core, and his amusing voice will draw both boys and girls like a magnet. Toten incorporates information about OCD through Adam's behaviour and dialogue in a natural, casual way that reveals how ordinary a boy Adam is and how the illness restricts his life. Adam's relationship with his stepbrother Sweetie is both amusing and heart-breaking. His one-on-one sessions with Chuck explore the one-step-forward, one-step-back nature of healing from a mental illness. Adam's group sessions showcase how he gradually comes to realize that the other group members can be real friends and, in two cases, saviors.
The stunningly beautiful Robyn, in the past both a cutter, an obsessive washer and a food sorter, responds to Adam's adoration and learns how to be Catholic from him, using the Rosary and other rituals of the church to control her pain. The other group members, all of whom have taken on the names of superheroes as alter egos to confront their helplessness, gradually come together as a group to support each other. From Thor to Wonder Woman, from Adam's Batman to Robyn's Robin, the group slowly but surely coalesces under Chuck's guidance and Adam's perseverance. Chuck is the model psychiatrist, beloved of the group, a wildly dressed Jamaican who wisely weaves lifelines that will eventually heal the pain. Rick, Adam's priest from his childhood, opens his church and his arms to the group as they investigate the rituals of Catholicism. Adam's mother, a successful nurse supervisor, retreats into mental illness, sending herself vicious letters as a cry for help even as she begs Adam not to reveal the hoarding mess in their house. Adam's stepmother Brenda embodies the cheerful too-interested relative who wants everything to be better for everyone, while his father bumbles through his relationship with Adam, rarely there when he needs him.
Although the themes of this book are serious and Toten should receive much praise for highlighting the pain and terror of mental illness, the struggle to survive it, and how it affects ordinary people, it is important to note that the book is, in many parts, very lighthearted and funny. Readers will find themselves laughing out loud, nodding sympathetically with Adam's dilemmas, and shedding a tear or choking back a sob as Adam talks with Sweetie. The dialogue is sharp and witty and realistic, carrying the plot and the development of character in an excellent way. There are no missteps here.
The setting could be any large Canadian city as most of the action takes place in the group therapy room or in the cemetery where Adam and Robyn meet.
Excellent novels like this are surefire ways to change the attitude of the young towards mental illness. This deft, thoughtful and hilariously funny novel will remain in the mind for a long, long time, and will come to mind the next time the reader is reminded that those with mental illness rely on the kindness of strangers to survive.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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