So the key to good fiction is that it feels real, yes? That whatever you’re reading – from some space alien wandering the galaxies afraid of the unending space, to a little boy with a purple crayon that can create his own moon if he chooses to – seems as real to as you are, sitting in your chair, or stretching out across your bed turning pages, or running for the bus, listening to the words in your headphones. That’s all I’m ever looking for, anyways, little pieces of true, no matter what form they come in.
In The Nature of Jade, Deb Caletti manages to create a lot of those little pieces – enough so that you can feel Jade’s anxiety when she feels it, understand the truth of it for her, in that moment. And I think that’s a real gift, since a lot of people don’t understand anxiety disorders or how it can feel to have the panic building up inside of you, spiralling around in your brain and whipping your pulse along with it, making your head hammer in your chest, and sweat break out in places you didn’t know could sweat (really, the tops of my arms? who knew?). They don’t get how it starts out so small, so little that you think you can capture it, think you can walk it back, can keep it calm and cool and under control, until suddenly you can’t and it’s out there and wild and people are looking at you funny and you know you’re behaving strangely, but you can’t do anything about it, because you’re not in charge any more, and don’t they understand that something is wrong??? Aren’t they getting the same panic, warning, danger!! signals in their brains that you’re getting?
Anxiety is a wild thing, and it makes little sense to the person who has it, and even less sense to the people around them. So the fact that Ms. Caletti was able to talk about it so clearly, to show all the little ways it creeps into a life, all the little ways you try to ward it off, until you just can’t, and how it feels when you just can’t, and how people start to look at you differently once that happens, and how it feels to talk about it (ad nauseam) to your shrink every week, well I think that’s an important thing.
To be clear, I’ve probably talked more in this review about her anxiety than she really does in the book – because that’s not the point. It’s just another thing that’s there, another part of her. There’s no after-school special aspect to this book (well, maybe with one of the other characters, but not with Jade), there’s no ‘I’m unlovable because I’m sick’, none of the tropes I have so come to hate that abound in books with characters who have illnesses or disabilities, and that’s why I am making a big deal out of it here – because it’s not a big deal in the book.I’m always on the lookout for books that talk about aspects of disability, so it’s definitely an important thing. But it’s not the only thing. And that is what makes this book better than average – because Jade is, by her own admission – not just her illness, not just a set of compulsions and prayers to patron saints and worries that may never manifest, but a fully functioning, teenage girl. With problems that have nothing to do with being sick! And good relationships with some people and sucky relationships with other people, and worries about colleges and where she should go, and too much homework and too little time, and a family that makes no sense, and … she’s just a regular senior in high school, who happens to have anxiety, and deals with it the best she knows how. Jade’s relationship with her mother is particularly brutal and honest and loving and everything I remember about being 18 and knowing exactly which tone of voice to speak in to set my mother’s teeth on edge. (or 34, for that matter.)
One of my favorite parts of the story is the elephants (hence the title quote) – Jade, in an attempt to meet a guy she saw on a live zoo-cam, somehow winds up volunteering to help care for the elephants. Sure. Fine. I don’t even care that it’s weird, because it’s also awesome. It’s a chance for the author to sneak in little tidbits and random facts about animal behavior, and I found them all fascinating: How elephants bond and grieve and how playful they are, and how you kind of have to trick them sometimes so they don’t get bored. It was all interesting to me.
For the most part, the book felt like it was about boxes – how we fit people (and animals) – first our families, friends, and eventually ourselves – into such tight tiny boxes and how growing up and out of those boxes – while it may be excellent and necessary in the long run, is just SO DAMN HARD. Young adult books are the perfect settings for these stories, of course, but I don’t think there’s anybody they don’t apply to. If you can’t remember what it’s like to look around you and think “But I used to fit here and now I don’t, and now I don’t know where I do fit”, then you’re either lying, lucky, or particularly unlucky, I can’t decide which.