#29 “Solitaire” by Alice Oseman

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  1. Goose – Dawn O’Porter
  2. Murder in Mississippi – John Safran
  3. Elianne – Judy Nunn
  4. Divergent – Veronica Roth
  5. Insurgent – Veronica Roth
  6. Allegiant – Veronica Roth
  7. The Messenger – Markus Zusak
  8. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman
  9. The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons
  10. NOS4R2 – Joe Hill
  11. Hades – Candice Fox
  12. Last Night at Chateau Marmont – Lauren Weisberger
  13. Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher
  14. The Maze Runner – James Dashner
  15. The Scorch Trials – James Dashner
  16. The Death Cure – James Dashner
  17. A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby
  18. More Than This – Patrick Ness
  19. Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead – Rebecca James
  20. Solitaire – Alice Oseman
  21. Trouble – Non Pratt
  22. The Rose Project – Graeme Simsion
  23. The Bane Chronicles  – Cassandra Clare et al

I thought this review was going to be negative. I thought that I would be warning all of you to steer clear of this novel and that the comparisons to John Green and Rainbow Rowell on GoodReads were desperately wrong. Cross my heart, I almost gave up on this book about four times. But my compulsive need to finish things kept me going. Well that, the mystery of “Solitaire” and the beautiful character of Michael Holden.

I was wrong.

I think Alice Oseman made a very brave decision in writing Solitaire the way that she did. She isolates the reader in the way that she introduces us to Tori (Victoria) Spring. Tori seems like the typical whiny teenager. Everything is always wrong, never her fault, and she dramatises everything. I was getting fairly annoyed with her. One of my original points was “where have all the strong YA heroines gone?”, because Tori annoyed me so much. There was a lot of moping and never getting out of bed and a general lack of interest in anything but her feelings of unworthiness. And then it clicked.

Tori has depression.

The clinical kind.

The kind that saps your energy, your motivation, and your will to do anything but exist. And even that can disappear.

The word “depression” is never mentioned. Tori seems to just be a melancholic individual. Until all of the pieces kind of click together and you understand.

And you know what? That is such a rewarding, confronting, and eye-opening thing to happen. I was so annoyed with Tori. I kept wanting her to cheer up, to just “get over/on with it”, and to start being more than just a victim. But she actually can’t. And that’s the point; such an important point when you’re talking about mental health. People with depression can’t magically “get better”. They can’t feel happy, no matter how much they want to. This is something people just can’t seem to grasp. It’s like how people with a broken leg can’t walk on that particular appendage, or people with amnesia can’t remember things. It’s just something that people with depression can’t do. And so many people refuse to see it.

Recently, I read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, a book that was also about mental health, but in a more dramatic fashion.  One of our co-protagonists had actually committed suicide in the book, whereas Tori is alive, but feeling grey.

I’m so glad that mental health is making a stronger appearance in YA fiction now. According to The Black Dog Institute, one in four teenagers is living with some kind of mental health disorder, people aged 18-24 have the highest rate of mental illness of any age group, and suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged between 15-24. Depression and illnesses like it are very much part of teenage culture, and I am so glad that this issue is finally making its way into the pop culture surrounding this age group.

Solitaire is quite simply a book with a message. Oh, the plot will keep you intrigued, and the relationships between the characters will keep you guessing, but it’s the message that kept me reading. In this book, not only does Tori suffer from a mental illness, but so does her brother Charlie (possibly an attempt by Oseman to discuss the genetics of mental illness and therefore driving home mental illness as an actual physical illness), and Michael Holden. But, similarly to the way that Darren Groth never name’s Perry’s particular “brain condition” in Are You Seeing Me?, whatever Charlie and Michael are suffering from is never given a name. And I love that. Oseman doesn’t label these characters by their particular mental difficulties, she works these difficulties into their personalities. It. Is. Glorious.

The main mystery of Solitaire is the Solitaire blog: a blog responsible for a bunch of pranks – some harmless, some not – in Tori’s school. But there’s a running theme to these pranks that has Tori, and her new friend Michael, a little freaked out. How the pranks are carried out is never explained, but that’s kind of not the point of the story. There’s a lot of reality embedded in Solitaire. There are loose ends that stay loose, and because the main part of those particular subplots are tied up, you don’t get all that frustrated. I mean, the situation with Ben Hope and Charlie Spring (Tori’s brother) is fairly self-explanatory, but Oseman never explicitly explains it.

I’ve been extolling the virtues of this book, but I did almost put this down, and I feel like it’s important to talk about this. First of all, there are a lot of pop culture references in this book. In the early stages, these references seemed to replace actual story. Until Tori and Michael watch Beauty and the Beast, the Disney version, and Tori’s impressions of the movie help to move the dialogue along. It also gives a huge insight into her character. But before this, the references to things like Harry Potter, Sherlock (the BBC version with Cumberbatch and Freeman), and Doctor Who, seem gratuitous and each one pissed me off.

Then there was the fact that we didn’t know what was “wrong” with Charlie for ages. I mean, Charlie seemed fine. Completely fine, until the big reveal about 100 pages in. Which made the reveal all the more dramatic, but I feel like Tori would let on a little more as to what is “wrong” with her brother. This delay in revealing information was a writerly technique employed to increase tension, but not giving the reader any information at all detracted from the story. A few breadcrumbs leading up to the big reveal would have made this part of Solitaire feel a little more believable. Everything else felt so real, but this was just a smidge of unreality that could have been handled better. But this may just be me.

The phrase “it’s funny because it’s true” is repeated an awful lot too. And Tori says “er” and “erm” in 99% of her conversations. This violates one of the basic character building rules I learnt in my BFA: it’s great for a character to have a favourite phrase, or a verbal tic, but if these get repeated too often in a story, the reader gets bored. Books imitate life, but they polish life up a bit. Could you imagine how boring most of our conversation would be if they were written down? It’s the author’s job to balance reality with decent reading. Oseman dropped the ball a few times.

This is a beautiful YA book, but you will struggle through the first few chapters, I’m not going to lie. I just want to tell you to stick it out. Because, much like running five kilometres each day, the results are totally worth it in the end.

Oh! Did I mention Oseman was eighteen when she wrote this book? Feeling so inadequate right now. When I was eighteen all I accomplished was successfully moving to a new city and failing to save any money at all during my first (and only, thus far) year of full-time work.

★★★★

PS: All of the images come from a Tumblr account that Oseman (I’m assuming) created for Tori Spring. This blog is managed as though it’s Tori is posting from the year before Solitaire happens. How cool is that?

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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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