When I became too old for Sunday School, I had to learn to sit through sermons. At first I doodled hearts and flowers on the church bulletin. When I was too old for that, I turned my attention to analyzing the sermon.
Depending on the preacher, I waited for Freudian slips, clichés, logical fallacies (“no true Scotsman”), and flights of magical thinking—flaws I found quite amusing. Yet the quickest way to lose my interest and respect was to traffic in the soggy old object lesson.
For the uninitiated, a pastor will tell a story—maybe from the news, maybe an anecdote, maybe made up for this express purpose—and retcon it to score a spiritual point. For example, a toddler painfully dying of leukemia is not just a suffering child but a vehicle for other people’s spiritual enlightenment. The doctors were stunned that she held on so long…proof of the efficacy of our prayers! The grieving family now truly appreciates the gift of life and has grown closer to God! The larger community mourns but rejoices that a pure soul has gone to be with the Jesus!
Despite its serviceable plot and prose, I’m Fine and Neither Are You is one big object lesson, a 266-page straight-from-seminary homily that I found predictable, implausible, and insulting in its oversimplification. Heroine Penny is a harried working mother with an underachieving stay-at-home husband and two kids. She moved to the Midwest from New York so her husband could go to med school and stayed even after he dropped out. Penny feels resentful of the whole situation: she’s far from her support system; she bears the pressure of being the sole breadwinner (while still doing most domestic tasks); she rarely sees her family; and she has but a single friend. To say more is spoilers but suffice it to say: someone else’s personal tragedy becomes the single best thing to ever happen to Penny. Like, rainbows and unicorns, all thanks to the catalyst of being in proximity to the Worst Thing That Will Ever Happen (to someone else). God forbid a person grow through quiet contemplation and old-fashioned discipline!
That the publisher (Amazon) is marketing this unsubtle Very Special Episode as a book club pick *for the womenfolk* and that it’s averaging 4.5 stars makes me want to go to bed at 6pm. I’m Fine and Neither Are You is not a mixed bag. It’s Minnie’s special chocolate pie in book form. Because I’m a better person than Penny, I will invite you to skip this meat trifle in favor of phenomenal fiction written by women who aren’t powered by the Oprah gravy train. Please reread Jane Eyre. Revel in Ling Ma’s gorgeously written, post-apocalyptic novel Severance. Read a foreign author in translation and learn about the global refugee crisis with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. Hell, go for a YA walk in an alternate history where zombies end the Civil War with Justina Ireland’s superb Dread Nation. Life’s too short to be stuck in this particular narrator’s head.