A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland (Our Chemical Hearts) is a rare gem of a book and possibly one of my favourite contemporaries ever. A hilarious tale of two teenagers facing their fears one at a time, this book approaches the topics of mental illness and social anxiety with flare and acceptance.
This review may contain mild spoilers for this book (What I consider spoilers might not be what you consider spoilers but I thought that I’d put it out there just in case). READERS YE BE WARNED!
I must be in the mood for contemporaries currently because Goodness am I reading a lot of them. I’m still not entirely convinced that I like them as much as fantasy novels but A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares almost makes me want to say it… Almost.
Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can’t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.
The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.
Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.
Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.
One thing that I have found with many contemporary novels is that, for the most part, you can generally guess what is going to happen by the end. This book however, was the complete opposite. While I did guess that Esther and Jonah would end up together (this is a YA book after all), I didn’t really know where the whole “curse” plot line was going to end. Kudos to the author for surprising me.
One thing I LOVED about this book is something really, really, REALLY pointless and possibly insignificant which is that despite it being a book about high school aged people they only actually have one scene where they are actually in school. I’ve read WAYYY too many books where half the time the characters are just sitting in their classroom doing absolutely nothing to move the story along.
This book was all kinds of awesome but the best bit, at least in my opinion, was how the author approached the subject of mental illness. There is quite a bit of proper discussion about how bad anxiety and panic attacks can be, about how depression can effect peoples lives, and how domestic abuse can effect the decisions people make. I loved that it was so honest; There was no sugar coating.
“People got tired of mental illness when they found out they couldn’t fix it.”
But that doesn’t mean that the whole book was super serious. There was tons of stuff that would be super relatable to people who haven’t had experience with mental illnesses before (like grandmas trying to out-grandma each other). Also, some of the lines that the characters come out with were just hilarious! To date I think this might be my favourite quote ever:
That morning, Esther brewed her coffee with Red Bull instead of water. “I wish to enter the fourth dimension,” she explained to Eugene.
This book was a sweet and easy read even if it did feel slightly long for a contemporary novel. Keeping with the whole “list” theme, Esther uses lists to explain or give background information on certain things (Kind of like the footnotes in Nevernight by Jay Kristoff but with WAYYYY less sarcasm).
To sum it all up: this book was fun and had awesome characters, with a quirky plot, and fabulous insight into how mental illness can effect people. It is definitely one of my favourite contemporaries I have ever read and I cannot recommend reading this enough.