Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: "Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez

October was Mental Health Awareness month. While I very much hope that everyone reading this heard about it at some point during the month, I mention it again now because depression, anxiety, and a whole slew of other disorders impact so many people every day, myself included. Whether or not you're aware of it, you know someone who struggles with mental illness either in themselves or someone close to them.

It seems as though the transitional period that is teenhood is when many of these mental health challenges can make themselves known. Small things can pile up to crate a seemingly insurmountable of adversity, or one big catastrophe can explode your life into so many fragments that you feel like you'll never be able to pick them all up. And when you're in the middle of trying to define who you really are for the first time in your life, as is the case for a lot of teens, it's sometimes very easy to get to the point of being overwhelmed.

Frenchie Garcia is at her breaking point. Or, rather, her melting point. She's 17 and still living with her parents in Orlando, her application to art school in Chicago was rejected, and her best friend has all but disappeared thanks to his girlfriend. It's enough to make anyone a little bit depressed. All her plans for her next steps in life have fallen through, and the only things Frenchie has the energy to do are walk to the neighborhood graveyard for chats with the headstone of someone named Emily Dickinson (not the famous poet, just someone who happened to share her name) and lie in bed thinking about the night that Andy Cooper died. Depressed, frustrated and full of guilt, it's not long before Frenchie is alienating the only friends she has left and showing the worst side of herself to the only person who might be interested in helping her work through her problems.

Desperate to come to terms with what happened the night Andy Cooper died, and hopefully through that start getting her life back together, Frenchie launches a half-baked plan to recreate his last night alive and try to find some meaning in it, some reason for the way it took place. If she can find a good explanation for why he died, maybe she can show herself that it really wasn't her fault, and escape the depression that's eating her life from the inside out.

"Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez is the story of a teenager's desperate attempt to find closure before she completely self-destructs and ruins her own chances of rebuilding her life. The way that Frenchie starts losing control and perspective, lashing out at the people around her and creating more problems for herself in the process, felt very realistic to me. Partially this was because Frenchie herself expressed a kind of incredulity that so many things could go wrong in such quick succession. As the reader I could clearly see that Frenchie's own irrational actions, caused by her depression and inner turmoil, were what was causing her problems with the people around her. But since the book was written from her perspective, I was able to understand Frenchie's frustration and the sense of powerlessness that went with her situation.

While her parents and her friends Joel and Robyn play important roles in Frenchie's life and struggle, namely by being wronged by and then forgiving Frenchie, they remain very static characters without much background or development. This ensures that the reader focuses on Frenchie and her progress, but ti also results in a certain lack of the depth that similar stories like John Green's "Looking for Alaska" or Ava Dellaira's "Love Letters to the Dead" possess. I think I would have appreciated the significance of Frenchie's relationships and how she first damages and then repairs them if there had been more time spent actually letting me get to know the people who are important to the protagonist.

Essentially this entire book centers on Frenchie, her thoughts and emotions, almost to the exclusion of every other character. While I felt that this was a sort of missed opportunity to deepen the story as a whole, I also understand that it makes sense from a certain perspective. I'll be the first to admit that when I was a teenager, my entire life revolved around me and my emotions. Looking outside of them was a difficult task, and it's also the big challenge that Frenchie has to overcome in order to set her life straight and move forward. For other teens who are struggling to see their way through the same issue, Frenchie's "selfish" perspective might be the most sympathetic.

One detail that really bothered me, despite the fact that it's very small: at one point, Frenchie is allowed to get a tattoo, at a parlor, without having her ID. She does it on a whim, without her parents' permission, and it's all thanks to the fact that one of the artists there recognizes her from the night that Andy Cooper died and vouches for her. In reality, a tattoo artist could lose their livelihood over that. I understand that for the sake of the story, he was supposed to represent a supporting character on Frenchie's journey to acceptance. But there were other ways that this could have been done without the blatant misrepresentation of the tattooing community and the impression that's given of tattooing and body modification in general being "not a big deal" even if you're a minor.

If you're looking for a sweet, sad story with a hopeful ending about picking yourself up and moving on, and the crazy things you sometimes have to do in order to achieve that, pick up a copy of "Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia" by Jenny Torres Sanchez. It came out last fall and is available right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.