There comes a time, in any book I am reading, where I ask myself why am I reading this? This question comes from a bunch of different sources, adult guilt over spending time just reading being one of the most influential, but it’s also about the quality of the book. Is what I’m reading worth (“good enough,” I guess I am asking) to quantify the guilt of being an adult who reads instead of _________ (cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, folding laundry, vacuuming the car, whatever else I should do but am ignoring). I didn’t ever feel this guilt before I got married, but as I got married when I was barely an adult, and as I married a non-reader who definitely doesn’t see the value in just sitting in a chair reading a book, I’m not sure if it’s an adult feeling or just a situational one.
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow is a book that made me ask why am I reading this? for a different reason: why read a book that is so dark? (I wrote about my history with sad novels here) It tells the story of Charlotte Davis, previously homeless, living, as the novel starts, in a health facility specifically for people who self-harm. Before she was admitted, she was living on the streets, running with some other kids who would gang-mug the men who tried to take advantage of them; before that she was barely-living at home with her mother, with whom she had a pretty rocky relationship.
Charlotte’s story is told in two parts, her time in the hospital and then her time afterward, when the health insurance money runs out. She’s supposed to go back to live with her mom, but her mom doesn’t want her to, so she cobbles together enough money for a bus ticket to Arizona, where her friend Mikey lives. Charlotte is definitely not ready to leave the facility when she is forced to; she has started learning some coping skills but has to figure out which ones work while living one disaster away from being homeless again.
I think the why am I reading this? question sparked up for me so often with this book because it seems like it has almost too many issues. Homelessness and the way society fails homeless people and poverty and under-age drinking and drugs and mother/daughter conflict and the failure of the healthcare system and the emotional and ethical limits of mental-healthcare providers and living wages and art and the power of creativity and suicide and friendship and a friend who suffered brain damage from a suicide attempt and trust and learning that not everyone deserves trust and romance and emotionally-abusive romance and physically-abusive romance and, oh yes, cutting. It’s a lot.
But somehow, it worked. It creates a portrait of a person trying to create a workable life, to figure out which path is hers and what choices she is in control of. I appreciate that it makes the point about mental health issues and how they are almost the same as addiction (the first step is admitting you have a problem): until a person chooses to try to cope, she won’t cope. She has to have help learning how, but the choice to actually do it is hers.
My biggest gripe with this novel is the bike, the damn yellow bike. Charlotte arrives in Arizona with literally almost nothing, just what she has in her backpack. But then all of a sudden she has a bike. A yellow bike. But it never says where she got the bike. (I went back and re-read some sections, just to make sure.) I think that’s the product of poor editing and the fact that this is a debut novel, and perhaps the overabundance of issues is too.
But I can (almost) forgive (but not likely forget) the bike, if only for the author’s note at the end, where she explains why she wrote a story about self-harm. It is one of those mental-health conditions that is hard to imagine unless you have experienced it (unlike, say, anorexia, which to me is highly imaginable). I imagined a teenage girl who is a cutter picking up this book and finding parts of herself in it, and I know there are people who would say she shouldn’t read it because it will be a trigger for her, it will make her cut more, but I find that argument debatable. Life itself is the trigger. But if she read it all the way to the end, and then wasn’t put off by the thought of an author’s note, and then read it, she would read that one in every two hundred teenage girls self harms. She isn’t alone. And then, she’d read this idea: “Self-harm is not a grab for attention. It doesn’t mean you are suicidal. It means you are struggling to get out of a very dangerous mess in your mind and heart and this is your coping mechanism.” If she could read that and understand it, she might be able to choose something different.
Why did I read this book? Why did I spend time with it when I could’ve been doing something the world thinks is productive? In the end, it is partly because of those library patrons, the ones who come in searching out sad books. Sometimes they talk to me, most of them don’t. But it’s there on the shelf—their “issue.” Their thing that might make them feel crazy and weird and unlike anyone else, and finding out that there are other people like you? That is also helpful to that all-important decision to choose to find a healthy way to cope.