I would say the power of a book lies in whether or not it delivers to a reader a simple story or a true reading experience. I’m not necessarily saying one or the other is a good or a bad thing. You can have a great story that is pretty unforgettable, but that story doesn’t perhaps bring with it all the aspects of a full reading experience. It’s sort of the difference between going on a vacation by taking an air conditioned tour bus and slapping on hiking boots and footing it across the countryside. The first is easy and enjoyable. The second is difficult but personally fulfilling in a way you couldn’t get from the first. That begs the question, what does it take to live an experience? Just think of a time in your life that you had a mind bending life altering experience? What did that feel like? Maybe it felt good, in a way. Or, at least, the end of that experience brought some clarity. It changed you, altered your perception of the world or of yourself. But during that experience you probably ran through a wide range of emotions. Amusement, frustration, fear, confusion, sadness, exhaustion, to name a few. Or maybe you had absolutely no fucking clue what you’d taken away from it. Not only is that completely valid, but it’s pretty much the entirety of human existence wrapped into one analogy. Do any of us really know what the hell is going on or why we are here? No, we don’t.
Reading All’s Well is a bit like that. On the surface, it’s a tragedy detailing how one simple moment can turn a person’s world upside down. Miranda Fitch was a talented and accomplished rising star in the world of theater when a tragic accident abruptly brought a halt to her career. She takes a job as a theater director at a small college while she fights the physical and emotional agony of chronic pain. If there’s one thing Mona Awad does well it’s to represent the sheer alienating force of invisible debilitation. A sufferer of chronic pain becomes a pariah, someone to avoid at all costs because they are a “downer.” Even those tasked with helping alleviate the pain treat Miranda as if the pain is all in her head and she’d be totally fine if she just decided that she was.
Here’s the interesting thing, though. While we desperately want to sympathize with Miranda, we do find her utterly maddening. I can fully admit that if I were in utter misery from sunup to sundown and everywhere in between, I would also be a hateful bitter pain in the ass, but that does not make the experience of getting to know Miranda any less frustrating. As we watch Miranda descend deeper into the depths of her addiction to pain killers and depression bordering on psychosis, we can’t help but to simultaneously pity and detest her. It’s a very human response to wish pain on others if even for a moment simply so they may understand what causes you to suffer. As Lewis Capaldi says, “I want someone to hurt just to know how it feels.”
Events in All’s Well take a turn for the classically fantastical when Miranda meets three mysterious men who can grant her the wish to not only share her pain but to transfer it to someone else, freeing herself from it but placing the burden on someone else. As with any good Faustian tale, everything comes with a price. Nothing is ever so simple as just being ok again. Frankly, no character was more insufferable than “ok Miranda.” I’m going to refrain from saying much more besides to tell you that Awad will leave you questioning everything, including reality and perception itself. I feel this is one of those books that is up to reader interpretation on a very grand scale. It would be an incredible book club pick if you feel your group has the patience and fortitude to deal with Miranda for long enough to finish the book.
The last thing I will address is the Shakespeare tie-in. Miranda, as the theater director, chooses the not as well liked All’s Well That Ends Well for the student performance, a decision that draws ire from her students who wish to perform in the more well-known Macbeth. While a familiarity with these plays could be beneficial to the reader and enhance the experience, it’s in no way a requirement for a perfect understanding of the book. In fact, Awad does an excellent job of showing the reader why the play is relevant to her story without making it too obvious or awkward. I also kind of appreciate how Awad pokes fun at society’s lack of attention span. The average person professes to like Shakespeare because we are supposed to in order to appear well read and intellectual, but we make sure to stick to the ones we’ve all seen a million times because we couldn’t possibly learn something new. This is the way. Sorry to steal your line, Mando.
In short, this book is both a brilliant look at addiction and mental health, but it’s also infuriating and deeply stressful. It will certainly make you think and possibly leave you a bit confused, but it’s a worthwhile read from which you will most assuredly bring something valuable. 4 Stars.
Published August 3, 2021 by Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1982169554. Hardcover. 352 pages.