My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Length: 349 pages
Release date: 5 September 2017
Esther Solar is unusual. It’s not just her outfits (always a costume–Red Riding Hood today) or her family, with their unique and weird obsessions. When Esther is mugged by Jonah, an old classmate, he takes everything she has, including her phone and her private list of worst nightmares. Jonah returns the phone, with nothing left in it but his number. Esther knows she shouldn’t phone Jonah–but she does.
Jonah sets Esther a challenge: to work their way through her list of fears together, facing one terrifying fear at a time, plus one that surprises them both…
“She hated not just that they were broke, but that everything they touched seemed to turn sour and curdled, breaking to pieces in their hands. She hated her life. She hated the bits of it they’d chosen for themselves and the bits of life that had fallen on them like dandruff, unpleasant and unwanted.”
Despite the important messages A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares sends to every adolescent contemplating whether they’re enough, I just could not get past how absolutely grating this novel was. Day after day, I had to force myself to re-open my copy to where it had already been conveniently bookmarked and slog through yet another chapter because, in the name of writing fair reviews, I refuse to DNF all but the very worst books. 40 chapters, and I got through them all. It feels like I’ve run a marathon.
Maybe I’m so fed up by this book because I expected something different from what it actually was. So let me start from the beginning with my misconceptions. The blurb on the back cover of my paperback promises a light-toned meet-cute story. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean it can’t cover serious subject matter, just that it would always maintain a touch of humour and/or optimism.
Take The Love Interest, where the protagonists are indoctrinated spies competing in The Bachelor‘s version of the Hunger Games, yet the novel is still full of empowerment and laughs. Or One of Us Is Lying, where all of the characters go through high school hell under a murder investigation, yet hope runs through the entire novel as they form genuine emotional bonds. So there are plenty of dark contemporary YAs that don’t linger in the doom and gloom of their characters’ crapsack prospects; Semi-Definitive List just isn’t one of them.
Esther Solar’s life sucks. No, seriously, it does. Her brother is suicidally depressed and cuts himself. Her dad is deathly agoraphobic and hasn’t stepped foot outside his basement in six years. The grandfather who once doted on her now lies with dementia in a nursing home. Her only friend is selectively mute and has never spoken out loud to her. Her prospective love interest has an abusive dad who physically beats him all the time. She herself believes her family is under a curse where they’ll all die from their worst fears, and she’s so insecure of being mocked for who she is that she dresses up as fictional characters and public figures. Oh, and her mom is a superstitious slot machine addict who would rather spend the night at the casino than make sure her children get dinner. Can you tell that the last one kind of pisses me off? Because yeah, it does. I’m not sure whether to hate Rosemary for being a borderline criminally negligent parent or admire Esther for still loving her so damn much. I know I couldn’t do the same if it were me.
The fact that there’s literally nothing going for the main character, and therefore nothing to root for beyond that she get out of this terrible home situation, makes the book outright depressing to read. Sutherland’s methods of lightening up the tone don’t really click–Esther’s wit extends only as far as the “haha look at how quirky I am” style that has little cleverness or fire to it. She drops a semi-obscure pop culture reference practically every page. I can’t remember ever having to pull up Google as often while reading a book (yes, including non-fiction books) as I did during Semi-Definitive List. And every time I opened up my laptop, I would inevitably end up doing something else for 10 minutes instead because I couldn’t bring myself back to continue struggling through. At least there isn’t a chapter for each of the 50 fears. I can’t imagine the headache I’d get from that.
By far the most interesting parts of the novel are Reginald Solar, the grandfather’s, flashbacks of his encounters with The Man Who Would Be Death (that’s how Esther calls him). They’re creepy, poetic, dare I say intriguing, and keep you guessing up to the last page for what the rational explanation might be. Unfortunately, they also keep you guessing after the last page. Because…it’s never explained. Is Jack Horowitz really Death? Ha, who knows, guess it’s not important! Esther seems to start believing that her grandfather’s stories are just stories, but then apparently changes her mind again, or maybe she doesn’t. Really, the only thought-provoking mystery of the novel, and it’s never actually resolved. Wow.
I get that this book is important for many readers, that its representation of mental illness, dysfunctional families and accepting who you are hit home for many people. And if you want to read a slow-paced story about a messed up young woman discovering herself, you may well be one of them. All I can say is, A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares wasn’t for me.