I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher.
Krystal Sutherland’s first book, Our Chemical Hearts, was one of my Best Books of 2016. Bearing that in mind, it was an absolute no-brainer that I was going to read and probably love her second, A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares. Or so I thought. Our Chemical Hearts was so beautiful it made my heart burst and my eyes leak, but ASDLoWN is magical realism, a genre I really just don’t like. I thought I would adore Marieke Nijkamp’s second book, but the magical realism genre put me off from the beginning, and I ended up very much disliking it. So I approached Nightmares with caution.
From the author of Our Chemical Hearts comes the hilarious, reality-bending tale of two outsiders facing their greatest fears about life and love one debilitating phobia at a time.
Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can’t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.
The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.
Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.
Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.
So I was torn, before reading, on how I thought I might feel about this book. On the one hand, I loved how Sutherland wrote, and her characterisation in Our Chemical Hearts. On the other hand, I really just don’t like magical realism. It’s something about the lack of explanation of things. But surprisingly, this book doesn’t suffer from that. I actually appreciated the supernatural elements of this book (much like I did with Second Star), in that they added to the story, but explanations were possible without them.
So this was actually a book in which the strength of the story won out over my dislike of magical realism. Jonah and Esther are two outsiders, teens trying to navigate their way through their messed-up worlds as they work through a set of weekly challenges. Jonah and Esther leaped off the page as they got to know each other and laughed and loved together. Eugene, Esther’s twin brother, has his own demons to face, and his story arc informs Esther’s as she journeys through her list of fears.
The weakest characters in this book was Hephzibah, who was presented in the beginning as someone as important as Eugene, but whose character development was largely off-page, and quickly became irrelevant to the story.
Esther’s parents, and Jonah’s father, were largely menacing caricatures in the background, although there were some touching elements in Esther’s relationship with her mother near the end of the book.
I find it difficult to put into words what I liked about this book. Two teenagers from difficult circumstances finding each other and working through a list of fears as a way to escape their rubbish lives and come to terms with the difficulties that everyone around them faces.
I also appreciated the intertwining narrative of Esther’s grandfather Reginald and his encounters with the Man Who Would Be Death/Death/Jack. The supernatural elements of the story were presented as something between reality and a fanciful story for grandchildren, and I appreciated the duality of it all.
Sutherland’s writing is nuanced and beautiful, and her dealing with mental health issues is delicate and effective. While aspects of the book were somewhat unbelievable – every member of Esther’s family having crippling MH issues, for example – and some were left unresolved – such as Jonah’s little sister! – overall, this was a really touching look at friendship, love, mental health issues, and dealing with the circumstances life has thrust upon you.