Have you ever heard the saying (not the Groucho Marx version, but the earnest one) about becoming a member of a club you don’t want to be a member of? It might just be pretty common in the circles I’ve run in, because I’ve mostly heard people talk about it in relation to loss – How you never want to become &/or welcome a new member to the parents of kids who’ve died club, or the widows’ club. Definitely clubs you do not want to belong to, ever. Logical. And yet somehow – once you ARE a member – the people in these clubs/groups with you become some of the most important in your whole damn life? Members that save you, and that you save, time and time again?
I’m a long-time member of the chronically ill girls’ club, and boy does the initiation SUCK. Worst, continuous hazing ever, and yet? The (worldwide, online, offline, near, far, complete strangers until the absolute moment they’re not) sorority of sick girls has saved my life, many, many times over. Because there’s nobody who knows the experience except the people who know. It’s why Boot Camp is good for creating troop morale & cohesiveness, right? – People who experience the same sorts of suffering just get it in ways other people don’t.
And I’ve previously talked *so many times* about how the same goes for books, so y’all know I have a special place in my heart for books about sick girls. Especially when they’re written by & for sick girls. So I’m going to start this review at the end of Lillie Lainoff’s One for All, with part of her ending author’s note. It doesn’t really spoil anything, but it does explain a major plot point. So if you don’t want that information – re: the heroine’s chronic illness diagnosis – please just skip over the quoted paragraph.
Tania’s experience is just one of thousands of unique experiences. She does not, and cannot, represent every person with POTS—or for that matter, every person with a chronic illness. But she does represent my experience as a chronically ill young woman. I was never a teen in seventeenth-century France, dueling in ball gowns … but I was the girl in high school who hid in the bathroom between classes in order to take medication without anyone seeing. … When I was at my most sick as a teenager, I lost myself in books, despite never seeing myself in their pages. I thought that meant stories like mine, about people like me, weren’t worthy of being told. That chronically ill, disabled girls couldn’t be main characters. That because I was sick, I’d never be the hero of my own story. I can’t go back in time. I can’t reach out to that girl and tell her that she is worthy and good and that it is okay to trust others. That there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed of. But what I can do is use what I am good at—turning words into stories—to prevent disabled readers from feeling that way now. I am not Tania, but Tania is a part of me. A sick girl, a brave girl, a girl who learns to love herself. The hero of her own story. And now, here she is. She belongs to all of you.
There isn’t a word in this quote that I couldn’t have written myself (except the part about writing this specific book, of course), and – even though I read it last – it was evident on every page of Lainoff’s book that Tania was important to her in this way. That the story was important to her in this way -> She seemed set – from the very first page – on showing the very real trauma, tensions, beliefs, hopes & fears of a girl who can’t trust her body, not in the way everybody else can, even in an almost idealized setting. The story of a girl who has learned – through hard-earned experience – that the people in her life are now less reliable too: That they see her differently, treat her differently, expect different things from her (or nothing at all from her, or too much from her), & that she has only herself to rely on. And how all of those things can be turned on their head just as quickly as they were the first time – by illness – yet again, when the RIGHT people come into her life. The kind of people that help her realize there’s more to them, and to herself, than she previously thought.
Wow, does Lainoff tell that story – Tania’s story, and her story, and my story too – SO, SO well.
But I should go back a bit, and explain the actual story better: Starting with the basics -> All for One is a gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers that includes aforementioned chronically ill teenage girl & three others, who take up residence in a fancy French ‘finishing school’ that isn’t exactly what it appears to be. The other girls have already been there training for a while when Tania shows up, after the murder of her father, but – amidst fencing and flirting lessons, missions & mishaps – the four bond rather quickly. I don’t actually want to go too in-depth regarding the ins and outs of the plot of the book, because I want to go <really> in-depth about the plot of the book. Like I had a highlight on just about every page of the book, so we’re not going to do THAT kind of in-depth. Instead, I’m going to give you the very brief rundown about the rest: A plot to kill the King of France (who is also a snotty teenager himself, and doesn’t really respond well to suggestions that would keep him safest); surveillance & subterfuge at all the important events of the Season, in full best-dressed Parisian young lady’s fashions, of course; boys and men enter the party, mess everything up, make everything more complicated, and the race to protect the king gets more dangerous & deceptive every page.
I appreciated so much of what Lainoff does here, from the stories she is telling to how she tells the story – the quality of the writing, the wit & humor & heart she imbues these girls & their supporting cast with. But I’m trying to rave about the book, while also not spoiling anything, while also wanting to quote from its first page to its last. There’s almost nothing about this book that I didn’t love. And even the thing I didn’t love was just so TRUE, that its inclusion is still part of why I love the book so much.
The part I don’t love (but which contributes to the love) is our heroine’s internalized ableism. I don’t love it, but holy shit, do I U N D E R S T A N D it. I too, was a teenage girl who suddenly found the legs beneath her didn’t want to support her anymore, and the whole world changed with them. Who found that the friends you make when things are easier, sometimes just don’t make the effort to stay your friends when things get hard. And that others decide – out of fear, mostly, of also being seen as ‘other’ – that you need to be their enemy instead. Or how, when you have something nobody understands – and which, in 17th century France, was only seen not only as a physical failing, but, often, as moral & intellectual deficits as well – even your family often can’t see past it to see YOU. So, when Tania talks about the judgement she feels everyone around her making all the time, and how insidious that way of thinking becomes, how reasonable, to the point that, before long, anyone who’s looking at her for ANY reason could ONLY be looking at her because they see her inadequacies, her weakness, how pathetic she is. Well… I hated it, but it certainly rang true. There’s a point where she’s just been introduced to the other girls, and they’re talking about how things just feel ‘right’ now that they’ve all connected. And Tania’s thoughts then? Are heartbreakingly familiar: “Today was the first time I’d felt a glimmer of hope in the lining of my rib cage that perhaps there were people other than my parents who cared about me and my feelings—not friends, I couldn’t let myself think that, but people who understood I could be strong and need help at the same time.” “I couldn’t let myself think that,” she says, and teenage me nods along. Adult me is so, so glad that the sick girls of today have these kinds of books to read, to see themselves in, and to feel less isolated because of.
And will you like it even if you’re lucky enough to NOT be a member of the sick girl sorority? If you like feminist fantasy, filled with intricate characters, each as important as the next, you will. If you like books with a great sense of space and time and historical weight, different enough from the ‘usual suspects’ (say… Victorian England’s Ton in Season, perhaps) that you might learn or re-learn some actual history you hadn’t thought of in a good bit of time, you will. If you like books that explore the societal limitations placed on certain groups of peoples in those times – not just sick & disabled people, but also women as a whole, or people of different classes, all of which are taken up with vigor in the text – and how the might have been challenged, if our history had just been two or three degrees different, you will. If you’re interested at all in political intrigue and secret societies, then yes: You will enjoy this book.
I don’t want to sully this review by rehashing this week’s Ableist Reading Discourse, both because it’s too good a book for that, and because there’s always a new Ableist Reading Discourse of the week to bang my head against. Instead, I’m just going to say how happy I am that I saw Lillie Lainoff’s tweets about said nonsense, because her book came out on Tuesday, which means I can tell all of you to go find it, immediately. You lucky people! I got the ARC from NetGalley, but, when I mentioned that to Lainoff on same Twitter threads, she assured me that the finalized version was even better, so I’m going to buy myself a new copy as well.
*I mean, unless you’ve also read it already and want to compare notes, because, hit me up friends 🙂