October 5, 2012

All You Never Wanted: A Psychtember Review

 Patient: All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin

Presentation (from Goodreads): "With my eyes closed and Alex's core friends all around me, it was like I'd become my big sister, or something just as good. And so who cared if they were calling it Alex's party? One thing I knew: it would be remembered as mine.Alex has it all—brains, beauty, popularity, and a dangerously hot boyfriend. Her little sister Thea wants it all, and she's stepped up her game to get it. Even if it means spinning the truth to win the attention she deserves. Even if it means uncovering a shocking secret her older sister never wanted to share. Even if it means crying wolf.

Told in the alternating voices of Alex and Thea, Adele Griffin's mesmerizing new novel is the story of a sibling rivalry on speed.

Axis 1. Characters

Adele Griffin is just so good at writing complex characters. Characters who do the wrong things for the right reasons, the right things for the wrong reasons, and the wrong things for the wrong reasons...but not so often the right things for the right reasons. Her characters are so flawed — but in All You Never Wanted at least one of the two main characters is one you can root for. 

The sisters: Alex is obviously the more sympathetic, likeable sister; she has a whole host of issues to deal with (which will be discussed below) and certainly shows some less than honourable behaviour, but she is definitely easier to like than Thea.

Her sister, on the other hand, is a real pain in the neck. She's the 'bratty kid sister' taken to an extremely toxic level. I never felt like she truly cared about Alex (even though she said she did), because she went around sabotaging her sister — trying to take her friends and boyfriend, be "better" than Alex, and capitalize on the fact that Alex is struggling. Thea is never satisfied; she always wants more, and the only reason she wants it is because Alex has it. This life of luxury she's been given has opened up a realm of possibility. Suddenly there's all this stuff that she never wanted that she has now, and it's almost like she doesn't know what to do with it exactly, but it makes her want more. And she begins treating people like objects, stuff for her to accumulate. I suspect something clinical is going on with Thea as well, so her behaviour will also be addressed in detail on Axis 4. 

I wasn't strongly connected emotionally to either sister, although I found Alex easier to relate to than Thea, but they're very flawed and multi-dimensional. The story is kind of irresistible anyway, though, because it's clear that these two sisters are heading for disaster.

Xander and Joshua: Xander is the one person here who's sensible, the voice of reason/sanity. He's Alex's "rock" in a way. He's pretty awesome and the day he and Alex spend together is cute. While he's not perfect (he does get angry at times), he's pretty steady, and certainly preferable to Joshua. I couldn't get a read on Joshua for a long time, but basically, he's a jerk. I never liked him that much and I don't think we're supposed to!

Other side characters: We don't really get to know Alex's friends, "The Blondes," that well, but they're pretty much there just to show us that Thea is trying to steal them away from her sister. Honestly, I don't know why Alex wants to hang out with them anyway, because they don't seem that nice; I guess Alex and Palmer in particular have a long history and a strong connection. I wish we'd seen a little more about the mom (and Thea's and Alex's connection with her) as well as Arthur. At one point it's mentioned that Alex feels so bad about disappointing Arthur and I was like, "Really? Because you didn't seem to care about him for most of this book..."

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I was really confused for the first few chapters, but then it started making more sense as I got further into it. The whole story takes place in this glitzy glamour world of money, that Thea and Alex were pushed into when their mom remarried. It's almost soap opera–ish in a way; you can see it playing out kind of like the TV show 90210 with all these really rich teens. It conveys that vibe very well, and it's difficult to stop reading (especially towards the end) because you can't tear your eyes away from this glittery, frothy life of these rich people — and how destructive they are in their opulence. This kind of life is tearing Alex up inside, even as she weakly tries to rebel, and Thea is just destroying herself. 

It would have been interesting to have seen more flashbacks to when the mom first remarried, and been shown the effect (as it happened) of the money on Alex and Thea. As Alex acknowledges at one point, the whole thing does seem very "poor little rich girl". I couldn't feel that bad for people who have so much, but on other hand, I guess I can kind of understand how it would completely change your world and how you live, messing with your values and making you doubt yourself. I think how much it changes someone would depend on the character of the person, though. Thea didn't have a strong enough personality to resist it, and was tempted by the money and everything it gave her. It's pathetic how concerned she becomes with what people think of her. I have a hard time buying it's just the money's fault; you can point your finger at the fact that her stepdad's so rich, but really, it's how she reacts to that — the money is just an excuse. 

Plotwise not that much happens here, but it doesn't really matter — it's rich in social drama. Plus, there's the party at the end, and you know that's where everything's going to go down. And does Adele Griffin ever know how to end a book! It's exploiting some shock value, yes, but there's a sickening sort of ambiguity at play here; you don't really know what happened, but you are certainly left to suspect. The very last couple of pages gives us a brilliant dose of irony by being juxtaposed with what just happened previously.

Thea is a mess at the end, and Alex's behaviour really says something about how much Thea has torn apart their relationship (although Alex is a little to blame as well for that). However, I had to feel bad for Thea in a way (that is, given a particular interpretation of events), because she is pretty young and doesn't know exactly what she's doing. She's cluelessly reaching for fire, thinking she wants it...and then she finds out that she doesn't. There's definitely a message of "reap what you sow" with this book, and Thea cannot for the life of her figure out that there will be consequences to her behaviour, and that she'll just wind up hurting herself.

Unfortunately, we don't get much resolution about Alex's psychological problems. It looks like she's taking the first steps to getting herself back on track and getting help, though.

Axis 3. Writing Style

I just get so impressed by Adele Griffin's books because she's a really good wordsmith and the quality of writing is always high. In particular, I have to commend her talent for subtlety. She's excellent at insinuating twisted things; it's almost like the spaces where she doesn't say something are as important as all the words she does say. It's masterful writing technique when you can make those blank spaces mean as much (or more) than the actual words.

Alex's chapters are written in third-person and Thea's in first-person, which is interesting, because I feel like I couldn't understand Thea's perspective and attitude as well as I could relate to Alex's. It took a bit for me to switch between the viewpoints for the first little while, but this approach works to separate the two perspectives and keep them distinct.

Present-tense is not usually my favourite, but here I think it really gives the reader that sense of immediacy; the time passing is important because it all happens over a fairly short period. In particular, Xander's and Alex's relationship develops very quickly, and yet despite that we see they share a meaningful emotional (and physical) connection.

Some of the description in here may seem somewhat unnecessary, but it balances out some of the really important things that happen "off-screen" (otherwise it would be really short and simple!). There's also a fair bit of brand name–dropping (they are rich people, after all) which didn't do anything for me, since I didn't get most of the references; some of the slang was lost on me as well.

Griffin is great at creating meaning with fresh or unusual analogies/metaphors, and her writing feels quite powerful; it's not really a book to skim, because you could miss something important. She writes warped behaviour so effectively. I don't know how she does it, but somehow she manages to pull it off really well, so that instead of interpreting the characters as so unbelievable or unlikeable you don't want to read about them anymore, you're sucked in, wondering what they're going to do next. She also uses the unreliable narrator technique to good effect a couple of times, tricking the reader very nicely (spoiler: there are a couple scenes when Thea thinks up a lie, but you don't realize at first she's making it all up in her head, because it's written as though it's real, woven right in there).
Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

The psychology here is mind-boggling — there are so many issues that both sisters are dealing with.

Alex: she definitely has some kind of anxiety disorder, specifically related to the fact that she's worried she will lose control of her bladder in public. While she does appear to have something akin to panic attacks, I don't think she'd qualify for full-blown panic disorder. She certainly displays some symptoms present in a panic attack — pounding heart, trembling, jumbled thoughts — but I don't know that she has enough, or to the extent, that they would meet the criteria for a panic attack.

What I suspect may be going on with her is agoraphobia without panic disorder. Symptoms of anxiety can still occur with this, but they are not at the same level as panic disorder. This page about the disorder states that the individual is afraid of something embarrassing happening in public, and gives a loss of bladder control as an example. Of course, it might also be possible Alex has a form of social phobia or a specific phobia — it's difficult to say without a diagnostic interview! Regardless, what happened to her at the internship was absolutely humiliating, and I can see how that would make her feel ashamed and set off an anxiety disorder that snowballs.
Alex also shows hints of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). She has a need for perfection; she was always the admired, sociable sister that everyone looked up to, and while she didn't excel academically the way Thea did, she was planning on going to college. Now she's scared of losing control again and being imperfect. I doubt she is at the clinical level of OCPD, though.

Alex's phobia has led to other difficulties in her life. For instance, she barely eats at all now, because she wants to keep herself "void" to decrease the chance that she will have a repeat of the previous incident. I don't know if it would be classified as an eating disorder — it certainly isn't a typical case of anorexia, as Alex doesn't have body image issues — but it has similar effects. She's unhealthily thin and her menstrual cycle has become irregular. These kinds of problems are not touched on in most YA "issue books", so it's refreshing to see something more unusual being focused on.

Thea: she is such a weird, twisted character. I suspect she might have histrionic personality disorder. She craves attention, going so far as to invent the most outrageous stories and spreading hurtful rumors. Pathological lying can be associated with histrionic disorder. It seems like she does a lot of rash, self-flaunting things, including flirting with her sister's boyfriend.

This behaviour particularly happens when she's being "Gia", this "alter ego" of Thea's who makes her feel like a sexier, more confident person. She's aware of Gia, so I wouldn't classify it as dissociative identity disorder, but there are moments with hints of dissociation, and she certainly feels like she's playing two different roles.

It's creepy that Thea can be so cold and ruthless, and yet she has her innocent, naive side as well. We very occasionally see glimpses where Thea's real self (or at least her old self) comes back — for instance, when she feels guilty about something. A lot of the time, however, she just wants to be a manipulative Queen Bee. I wish we'd seen more of Thea before and witnessed the change in her; it's pretty sad what she's become. I think I would have liked her a whole lot more back when she was "bookworm Thea".

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was All You Never Wanted?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous 

The girl on the cover doesn't look like either of the sisters, in my opinion. (But it is a striking image!) Also, I think All You Never Wanted is a really good title for this book, as it works on a few levels.
Patient's statement:

"Everyone knows your written story is a lie. But if you're going to get people to believe your lie out loud, then you have to muffle them in your breezy, shocking, junky, juicy, sexy, needless words. As for your darlings? That's the goo of anticipation. What sticks 'em to their seats. And the whole entire point of the project is that you're launching yourself into the void. Spitting in blood and crossing your heart to vouch for an experience you'd never known. That you couldn't feel, touch, or taste until the moment it was on your tongue and you realized — Everyone is buying this crap. Even me.

It pumped me up just to think about."

Diagnosis: 4.5 shooting stars. 

This book counts towards my goal for the Just Contemporary challenge. 

Disclaimer: I received this book as an ARC from the author for review.

Note: this book has some mature language/references. 

Read my Psychtember interview with Adele Griffin here!

1 comment:

  1. This book was so powerful to me-I love sister-sister stories and was initially a little thrown by the first person/third person narratives. Then I finished it and just sat there for a bit stunned. Thanks for the insight into the psychological elements of it all.


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