Book Review: A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin
The writing pair behind Notes from the Blender, a great bit of realistic fiction about the complications and joys of becoming, through no effort of your own, part of a blended family during high school, is back for another novel with a shared narration. Emmy and Justin alternate chapters, detailing the daily grind of life at Heartland Academy, a school and treatment facility for teens who are… well, a really awesome mess.
I really enjoyed Notes from the Blender and the interplay between Cook and Halpin’s voices and perspectives. The same technique is used here, and though the book is definitely enjoyable, I didn’t feel the same “zing” as in their previous collaboration, perhaps because there’s less humor in the subject matter, and perhaps because both characters need to focus inward so much more because of their situations.
Emmy, adopted as a baby from China by a Caucasian American family (who had a biological child just a few months after the adoption was final) struggles with an eating disorder and her feelings of abandonment and otherness, in addition to her anger over an incident of cyberbullying and sexual harassment at her previous school. Justin claims he wasn’t really trying to kill himself when he took a bunch of Tylenol, but in combination with some inappropriate sexual behavior, the cry for help was heard loud and clear and he lands in Heartland too.
As Emmy and Justin learn the ins and outs of institutional life and get to know their roommates and groupmates, they begin to let down their guard enough to accept help and friendship when it is offered them. Each finally admits that they have some issues that they need to work on, and begins to see their life before Heartland in a different way.
The cast of supporting characters is certainly interesting, and as you might expect from a book whose peer group of focus is a therapy group, each has a backstory and complexity that is slowly revealed. There’s a sideplot regarding a pig, which seemed a little contrived and stretched the walls of believability, but certainly broke this book away from the realm of predictable and lightened the mood significantly, buoying it on toward the happy conclusion.
The promise of hope and healing is strong here. Put this on your list of books for teens with “issues”, recommend it to those who might like other books about teens struggling with mental health issues but might want something a little lighter. This book is more about the process of understanding that a problem exists than delving deeply into the complexity of one specific disorder as is done in Wintergirls or Cut. Keep in mind that though there’s lots of talk of sex, there isn’t actually much physical contact at all between the main characters, whose relationship builds slowly after many fits and starts, and progresses in a really mature way with self-awareness and good sense.
Booklist (July 1, 2013) says, “The bawdy, witty, and sarcastic style balances out the intense therapy discourse and the pensive self-reflection found elsewhere in this irreverent take on mental health, recovery, and wellness.” – Jones, Courtney.
A Really Awesome Mess by Tish Cook and Brendan Halpin. Published July 23 by Egmont USA. ISBN: 9781606843642.
More on Body Image and Eating Disorders in YA Lit at TLT
Body Image and Eating Disorders
Top 10 teen titles dealing with body image and eating disorders
The Girl in the Fiberglass Corset; a story about scoliosis and eating disorders
Sex Sells, but what are we selling?
Let’s Hear it for the Boys
Pop Culture and Body Image Issues for Gay Teens, a guest post
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: True confessions from a recovering anorexic
Teen Obesity and Body Image:
Every Day by David Levithan, a book review
Butter by Erin Jade Lange, a book review
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, a book review
Skinny by Donna Conner, a review
A Second Opinion: Every Day by David Levithan
10 Titles that deal with Obesity and Body Image (with links to some good articles)
Today is Love Your Body Day
The Effects of Pop Culture on the Body Image of GLBT Teens
Body Image and Weight Loss
Sex Sells, but what are we selling? Pop culture and body image issues in tweens and teens
Take a Second Look: Books that encourage teens to look beyond body image
Abercrombie and Fitch, Brave and Body Image: Part 1 and Part 2
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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