I know that professionally speaking I should be a fan of all genres, and theoretically I am. But I struggle with romance. And anything published by an imprint called Swoon Reads makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little. Yet despite any prejudices I started with, I thoroughly enjoyed Cindy Ansley’s debut novel, Love, Lies, and Spies. In a romantic romp through Austonian England, an aspiring scientist and a fledgling spy, neither of whom wish to be married, accidentally meet and their lives change. The whole thing is rather unbelievable, absurd, and farcical — kind of Jane Austen meets Ally Carter and Peter Sellers. For example, our heroine, despite her feminist independence, frequently finds herself in mortal peril and usually tries to refuse help she obviously needs. Our hero (the spy) often follows people who know him, wearing various false facial hair or quickly changing his hat, and yet nobody notices or recognizes him. Oh, that 19th century class system – that you wouldn’t recognize a fellow Lord because he’s wearing whiskers and a bowler hat! The chemistry between the two leads is charming, with witty banter and ridiculously heated flirtation. The romance is very predictable, and the espionage confusing. But I can’t think of a single one of my students I would recommend this book to. I don’t think they would find it the slightest bit funny without first having read their fair share of Jane Austen or other similar literature. And without the satire it’s mostly romantic fluff. I finished this book feeling a little confused about who it’s audience should be.
I really wanted to like Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. I loved the flawed complexity of the characters, I loved the premise, I loved the writing. But I really struggled with the portrayal of mental illness and the implausibility of the feel-good happy ending. Sixteen-year-old Solomon Reed, due to severe anxiety disorder has developed agoraphobia and hasn’t left his house in three years. Seventeen-year-old Lisa Praytor, aspiring psychiatrist, wants to “fix” him. It grabbed me on the first page, and held me through the whole book. But it sustains three untruths about mental illness that pop up in other young adult fiction:
- Medication and Therapy are Bad. And parents are pretty useless too.
Mental health treatment varies for each patient, and what works for one person does not work for another. But Solomon refuses to participate in either drug or talk therapy, and eventually does absolutely nothing to treat his anxiety. And his otherwise loving and supportive family doesn’t seem to care. We see only the naive Lisa inexpertly attempt to challenge Solomon’s seclusion. Lisa becomes his only option for getting better, simply because Solomon and his family stopped looking for any other help.
- Another Person, or People, Can Cure You.
Friendship and support are really important when facing mental illness, but other people can’t cure you. And this is the real issue I had with this book. Solomon starts to get better once Lisa and her boyfriend Clark enter his life. Yes, their friendship provided some motivation for Solomon to push himself outside his comfort zone. But being in love doesn’t suddenly make everything better. Having friends doesn’t make clinical anxiety go away. And then there’s Lisa and Clark’s betrayal of Solomon, the revelation that he was a psychology project for a college scholarship. He’s just going to forgive them, and trust them again, like it’s no big deal? Like he never had anxiety about these relationships?!? If the support of their friendship is what helped Solomon’s anxiety improve, how did he keep it together after learning their friendship was built on lies?
- A Happy Ending.
Happy endings are not easy with mental illness. That sort of struggle doesn’t just magically go away. And a story’s climax and crisis doesn’t make anxiety better. It makes it worse. The idea that Solomon would venture outside for the first time in years in the midst of a family crisis escorted by two people who had recently betrayed him is highly illogical, and highly unbelievable. Not to mention Lisa and Clark, whose relationship was falling apart, are now suddenly holding hands? And everyone can just jump into the pool at the end of the book like it’s a party? I just couldn’t buy it. I really wanted to, because it’s the only way to get such a happy ending. But I couldn’t.
But what I do see in this story is potential for meaningful conversation. For all it’s faults, Highly Illogical Behavior is far more thought provoking than Love, Lies, and Spies. I can think of at least a dozen students who would eat it up, and twice as many questions I would ask them once they’d finished it. Questions about mental health, about complicated friendships, about betrayal, and taking advantage of others, about sad endings, and comfort zones, and unrequited love, and so many other things. For its relevance and depth, John Corey Whaley’s Highly Illogical Behavior wins this round.