In Peterson’s (Leave of Absence, 2013, etc.) insightful third novel, a man suffering from various anxiety disorders finds hope after forming an unexpected bond with a troubled foster child.
Brian Cunningham, 43, is the night custodian and information technology specialist at Hayden Elementary School. A sufferer of acute panic attacks, he lives his life trapped in a nutshell, a self-imposed safety zone, beyond which exist his darkest fears. His profession allows him to minimize his contact with others and thus manage, or at least tolerate, his debilitating disorder. As the novel opens, the author quickly and deftly charts the anatomy of a panic attack, a phenomenon many nonsufferers might ordinarily find inscrutable. Brian’s mind races as his inner narrative alerts him to perceived external threats that pose no real danger. His breath quickens, his chest tightens, and he suspects his heart is failing—little wonder, then, that he chooses to shut himself away from any potential trigger. Enter Abigail Harris, a hostile 7-year-old suffering from attachment issues and disorders relating to abuse and frequent moves among foster homes. It is Abigail’s first day at school, and hating every moment of it, she decides to go AWOL. Brian discovers the small girl taking refuge in a classroom, and overcoming the paralysis he normally experiences when unexpectedly encountering another person, he begins to communicate with her. The two are surprised to find that they share a mutual understanding. The novel charts the evolution of their platonic relationship as they draw positivity and solace from their experiences. The friends begin to see a possibility for change, although numerous obstacles block their path. As in her previous novels, Peterson demonstrates a tender, notably human understanding of mental illness. In her latest effort, she plays to her strengths, jettisoning an occasionally soapy style in favor of constructing complex psychological portraits and realistic plotlines. In doing so, she accurately captures the crushing sensations of anxiety disorder while simultaneously offering rays of hope.
A vital tool for sufferers and their families that broadens understanding of a debilitating illness.