The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf. Dial Books, 2013. Currently Available.
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Face Value: This is a perfectly solid cover. While it doesn’t blow me away, I always think that a text-based cover design is appealing. The backdrops of smiley faces reflect the story, the font is appealing, and it will hold up over time. Contemporary realism about girls always runs a risk of pink, headless girls, and soft lighting, and it’s nice that this one is straightforward and classy.
However, when I looked at Goodreads for alternate covers, I found this absolutely beautiful ebook cover! Here we have an illustrated version of Izzy’s face, constructed with the materials that make her unique – just as her artwork is described in the book. Why is this beautiful edition wasted on ebooks! Can I get that on a paperback please?
Does it Break the Slate? YES! Oh, Izzy, you are a Slatebreaker at heart, and this book addresses feminist issues through a hilarious, empathetic lens. Raf also integrates humor into her story in a Slatebreaking way. This book made me laugh out loud, and the humor is based in very real elements of the female experience.
Who would we give it to? I hope this book finds an audience with readers of Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray – Raf is another writer with a skilled grasp of the fine line between comedy and tragedy and how those things can be distilled into the contemporary teenage experience.
Review: Izzy is keeping it together, but barely. Her mother is sick, and maybe sicker than she’s letting on. Her best friend has undergone a strange transformation. She has to put together an art portfolio in a short amount of time, but she’s also been committed to set design for the school production of Oklahoma! and roped into decorations for the school dance. She keeps embarrassing herself in front of boys and her boobs are way bigger than she’s comfortable with. There are a ton of minor plot points to balance, but ultimately the narrative makes it work.
The biggest reason this book works is that Izzy is such a relatable, empathetic character. I found myself rooting for her completely. I also totally identified with her. She makes some stupid choices throughout the book, but she’s also wonderfully real, and her voice really drives the story forward.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the humor is a huge part of what makes the book work, and what makes it Slatebreaking. Even though Izzy and her friends are going through big stuff, mild and major trauma can still be material for great comedy.
Raf also makes a point of talking about the female body and the way we frame the female body in society. Izzy feels both proud of and embarrassed by her body – she recognizes the mixed messages she’s getting from the world around her but is still in the process of negotiating how to respond to that. It’s refreshing to read a book that not only talks about breasts from a humorous and life-change perspective, but acknowledges the complicated messaging that girls hear about their bodies as they change. Pushing back against the objectification of the female body becomes a major thematic undercurrent of the book.
There’s also some really frank explorations of sex, and how that can relate to girls’ reputations and perceptions (across genders). One character is a victim of a false rumor, which damages her friendships and reputations (from both adult and teen characters). Another is embarrassed to talk about her own sexual experiences for fear of being judged. When a picture of boobs goes viral across the school, I really enjoyed the girl-driven, empowering solution that the characters come up with to protect each other. Even though there’s a lot going on, it doesn’t ever feel preachy or contrived, nor does it take the power away from the female teenage characters, which I really appreciated.
The only thing that I was left wishing for was one character to have a positive sexual experience. The negative experiences that the different characters have are dealt with in really constructive, thoughtful ways, but I would also love to see sexual experiences happen without any negative fallout to balance it out a little. There are the inclinations of good things to come, but I wanted to see it more present, directly in the narrative.
Overall though, this is a terrific first novel. I can’t wait to see what comes next from the writer. To hear more about Mindy Raf, check back on Thursday for our author interview!
Reviewed from library copy.