As a general rule, I try not to judge books by their covers, or even by their synopses. I’ve found that typically, neither one can fully capture the essence of a book, which is of course understandable and expected. Having said that, I admit that I initially judged A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by its cover, to the extent that I put it down without even bothering to read the synopsis at first. The cover is a somewhat cutesy lilac color – not quite what I would have chosen for a story about mental illness, murder, and fear. And what with the disembodied skeleton arm holding a purple orchid and the stereotypical black cat staring out from the bottom, it all just felt like a desperate attempt to cutely convey that THIS BOOK IS SPOOKY.
Once again, though, the old adage has proven true – you can’t judge a book by its cover. This book is much darker than one would think at first glance. The story centers around the Solar family curse, which leads each member of the Solar clan to their own unique death via one major fear (i.e. developing a fear of germs and ultimately dying of a common cold). But there are also heavier themes explored in the book, including severe and debilitating mental illness, rape, murder, neglect, and physical abuse. Had I given into my natural instinct to steer clear of a book with a cover like this one, I never would have discovered this strange and delightful story.
Esther Solar is a quirky, costume-wearing teenager whose family curse has been the stuff of legend for decades, and has set the family quite apart from the rest of society. The curse originated with her grandfather Reginald, a retired detective who is now deteriorating rapidly due to dementia, but whose stories about the curse have plagued the family for a long time. As the family legend goes, Reg met Death himself during the Vietnam War, with Death disguised as a soldier on the battlefield. This “man who would be Death” was just an apprentice reaper at the time, and divulged that Reg would die of drowning. So, convinced that he has been cursed by Death, Reg survives the war but avoids water for the rest of his life, and plants the fear of the curse into his own children and grandchildren.
Now suffering under the curse are Esther’s brother, who is a depressive artist-type with a deathly fear of the dark, her agoraphobic father, who has not left their basement for six years, and her mother, who obsessively gambles and fears bad luck enough that she’s surrounded the family house with rabbits, charms, and a “lucky” rooster. Esther hasn’t discovered her own worst fear, nor does she ever plan to. She creates the titular “Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares” which lists every single thing she is afraid of (many of which seem to come from her screenings of various scary movies), and naturally aims to avoid everything on said list because each item might end up being her undoing. However, after she is charmed and then hilariously pickpocketed by her childhood friend Jonah Smallwood, the two forge a somewhat unlikely bond and start facing Esther’s fears together, one by one, so that fear doesn’t take hold of and destroy her life.
This book flirts with some magical realism, which I always love in a story. Did Esther’s grandfather Reg really know Death as a real person? Does her brother Eugene really flicker in and out of vision/existence? Is her mother’s rooster really a goblin? There are lots of oddities in this book that strain credibility in that wonderfully magical way. There is also a pretty cute love story between Jonah and Esther, and much of the book is centered around them conquering and documenting Esther’s fears together, falling in love in the process. However, I found that the real meat of the book had to do with one of the central questions presented: Does the Solar family misfortune truly lie in the mystical, or is it simply a result of their shared and inherited mental illness?
Having been raised in a family fraught with generations of mental illness, but also raised with an unspoken, innate belief in the extraordinary, I connected with this book almost immediately. I wanted to see where the author would take such a story. Part murder mystery, part love story, part exploration of mental illness, and part commentary on the nature of belief, the book treads all kinds of ground very gracefully. Though it sounds convoluted, the story is actually pretty straightforward, and it’s compelling to boot, told in a way that doesn’t give away every plot point. Finding my way along with Esther, I too constantly wondered what was real and what wasn’t, not knowing if the fantastical happenings were truly inexplicable, or if they were just the result of garden-variety mental illness and family mythology run amok.
Although the ending is a little more outlandish than I would have liked (I preferred the ambiguity of not knowing if the fantastical elements were real or not), I found the conclusion to be satisfying, and the revelation of Esther’s fate to be appropriate, if a little on the silly side.
All in all, two thumbs up. I’m glad I ended up buying this one on a whim because, cover and all, it definitely deserves its place on the shelf.
Fans of darker stories with a comic twist, and those who enjoy magical elements in a book. Also for those who can tolerate some mild but definitely off-putting descriptions of child/teen abuse and child murders.
Author: Krystal Sutherland
Publish Date: 2017
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN / ISBN13: 9780399546600
US Price: $10.99