A young woman with chronic illness takes matters into her own hands in this debut novel.
Adrea “Drea” Ragnason can’t find a doctor who understands her. Her symptoms, from fatigue to baldness to acne to fainting spells, have come to define her. Her latest physician, Dr. Natsker, has the same dismissive bedside manner as other doctors Drea’s seen: one thinks she’s fainting because of stress from her final exams, while another believes that she just needs to exercise more. Luckily, her aunt, Betty, with whom she works at a bus station ticket booth, is sympathetic and compassionate, though Drea’s mother, Iris, is well-meaning but irritating. One morning Drea decides that the solution to her problems is to visualize her doctors as suffering from the same symptoms she has, and she does so in her journal. Meanwhile, Dr. Helene Gundersen, a talented psychologist, has just opened her own practice in a sunny, welcoming cottage; soon, some of her patients complain of terrible health issues. Betty helps Drea find an apartment above a flower shop owned by Otto, a widower who encourages her to continue to be more vocal with her doctors. When the opportunity comes for Drea to move into Otto’s house and help him open a plant nursery, she’s happy to do so. But she continues to have fainting spells and fatigue and demands to be tested for polycystic ovary syndrome. It’s revealed that some of Dr. Gundersen’s patients are also Drea’s doctors, and they come to realize that their lack of empathy for their patients is humiliating and frustrating when the tables are turned. Overall, this novel could have used more nuance, which might have elevated the novel from a litany of woes to a true exploration of empathy. It also takes a while for Dr. Gundersen’s role in the novel to become clear, and the epiphanies that her patients have are often heavy-handed. That said, the story does an excellent job of portraying the relentless difficulties of suffering from hard-to-treat, chronic illnesses. The characters that love Drea despite her issues are a welcome contrast to the self-pity that sometimes colors other chapters. Deck also considers Drea’s plight from several angles, including how it may be affected by gender bias. Although the novel ends abruptly, its message of self-advocacy and love is palpable.
A sometimes-exhausting but realistic portrait of life under physical duress.