I didn’t think that I wanted to read about chronic pain. Most people don’t. We tend to prefer invincible heroes who can slay dragons, work day and night to achieve their dreams, and come back from injuries remarkably fast in our fiction. No doubt, the swiftest way to escapism from the eternal migraine that is the real world are characters who are fallible but all the while unbeatable. Characters who run out brazenly into their environment, ready to take on fate and monsters. Characters who aren’t afraid of falling short.
However, once I was diagnosed with lupus, and, subsequently, POTS, my taste in fictional stories started to shift. Why? Well, I was stuck in bed, too weak and dizzy to stand up, which, without fail, isolates me from the world in one cruel flip of a switch.
At those moments, I did not feel beckoned to read about invincible protagonists and their epic adventures. I wanted to feel represented and, better yet, able to relate to a character whose health struggles felt as all-consuming as mine often do. I knew there was a storytelling drought in the representation of chronic health conditions and disabilities and had yet to meet a character that would give voice to my own pains and frustrations. That is, until I met Miranda Fitch.
Mona Awad’s 2021 release, All’s Well, gets its name from a Shakespeare play with a popular catchphrase title: All’s Well That Ends Well. The novel’s leading lady, Miranda Fitch, has strong ties to the theater from her youth – a stage career that was brusquely halted after sustaining a hip injury in a fall. One injury sets off another injury, which sets off another surgery, and another chronic symptom, to the point that the Miranda we meet on page one is nearly at her breaking point. In fact, we open with Miranda lying on the floor in her office, in too much pain to get up and face her troop of theatre students, whose Shakespeare play she’s charged with directing.
From first introduction, Miranda is sardonic and witty, full of bleak humor, with a keen insight into how her chronic ailments are regarded among colleagues, healthcare professionals, and society as a whole. I loved her immediately. Though, I honestly didn’t know what to expect in a novel spotlighting chronic pain. What unfolds in Miranda’s journey is far beyond what anyone would anticipate.
Surrealism and Shakespeare
Based on my own experience, chronic ailments lead to a very stationary life. Much like Miranda, I knew the overwhelming struggle of simply getting by day to day, which doesn’t leave much room for epic adventures and traveling the world. This reality is, admittedly, a major challenge for imploring chronic pain as a literary topic. The hypothetical “dragon” to slay simply becomes getting out of bed or running an errand, or trying to maintain a social life. That’s usually not enough to fill a standard 300-400 page novel.
Awad overcomes this inherent hang-up for representing chronic pain in literature by taking a surrealist spin on her character’s journey. Dare I call it, one big fever dream. Without giving away too much about the plot arc, I would say that the author’s decision to lean into the odd, whimsical, and unexplainable was the most satisfying invocation of a topic that many seek to avoid. She puts chronic pain on stage to depict this remarkable intersectionality between “performance, pain, and belief.” The author explains:
One of the things that’s so hard about having chronic pain, having any kind of pain that’s not visible, is communicating it to others not only for the purposes of relief, but to be understood, to feel less alone in it…In order to explain my pain not only to doctors but to friends and colleagues, I would find myself performing it a little. And that act of performing inherently causes you to second-guess yourself, which is so scary: the pain is a reality you’re living but because of the performance element of sharing it, your reality immediately becomes suspect.“A Conversation with Mona Awad” from All’s Well
In this context, Awad truly captures the life-altering nature of chronic pain and proves that the crises of identity it procures are stories worth telling. I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
Anger and Mourning
Alongside the themes of inner turmoil that stem from Miranda’s chronic hardships, there was another unique factor to Awad’s storytelling that made me adore the enthralling and unsettling premise of All’s Well. Particularly, how the novel fully recognizes the feelings of anger and mourning that come with a chronic condition. The latter involves grieving a life you used to live. For Miranda’s character, that past, pain-free self was a theatre star and her partner’s sole object of affection.
Much of the novel entails Miranda grappling with her hold on the past in a near-hallucinatory manner, mourning a version of herself that she can’t return to. This is something I deeply related to as someone who lost their college years to chronic illness.
Additionally, regarding the component of anger, I was glad to see the author lean into one of the greatest inner challenges that come with chronic pain: the consuming feelings of resentment and jealousy. That’s not to say that this book is about feeling sorry for oneself. Not at all. But it recognizes that painful and isolating disconnect from an able-bodied world. Along these lines, Awad explains how her personal health struggles informed this novel:
I remember feeling very helpless and scared because a lot of the issues were neurological and chronic at that point, and so somewhat invisible, subject to debate, and difficult to treat…
I was at my wit’s end and I started dreaming not only of relief but of revenge. One of the most satisfying things I could image back then was a woman who could offload her pain onto people who hurt her or didn’t believe her. And so Miranda was born.“A Conversation with Mona Awad” from All’s Well
In all, Miranda’s journey encompasses the many vital strands of chronic pain representation that I’ve yet to see anywhere else. Her journey is one of both despair and resilience, which recognizes the turmoil of living in a body that seems to entrap you rather than sustain you. Not to mention, Awad deftly incorporates social commentary about misogyny in our healthcare system and how female pain is either romanticized or discredited by broader society.
The final result is a novel that brilliantly reframes heavy subject matter through various lenses for a more palatable but no less potent story about channeled anger and strength – one that operates on the scope of both Shakespearean tragedy and comedy.
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