Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
Genre: YA contemporary | Diversity: anxiety rep | My Rating:
In this heart-wrenching story, Norah struggles with a trifecta of mental health issues: agoraphobia, OCD, and depression. She has hardly left her house in four years and experiences debilitating panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, and general feelings of hopelessness. Her only human interaction comes from her mother and her therapist—until Luke moves next door. Cute, charming, and just slightly awkward, Luke is the first person who’s made an effort to befriend Norah since she stopped leaving her house. At first, she doesn’t trust him at all, but she slowly comes around, opening up in ways that terrify her, and learning that it’s possible for someone to care for her, despite all the ways she feels broken.
a couple disclaimers.
I have never been diagnosed with an anxiety-spectrum disorder (although I occasionally experience mild symptoms, like racing thoughts and difficulty concentrating). I do not have intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, or issues with self-harm. I am fortunate that I was able to read this book without being triggered.
Full list of potential triggers: generalized anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, phobias, self-harm.
amazing anxiety rep.
That being said, this book has amazing anxiety rep. Don’t just take it from me: other reviewers, including people with similar issues to Norah’s, have said this book is a great look at what it’s like to live with anxiety. Because the book is told from Norah’s perspective in present tense, reading the book means immersing yourself in her thoughts. Even the sentence structure reveals the extent of Norah’s anxiety, in that the text reads like her racing thoughts.
It’s really refreshing as someone with depression to read a story that isn’t about “the cure.” So often, we hear accounts of “I got diagnosed, went to therapy, and then I got better,” but this is not the case. Norah identifies her mental illnesses, but this is only the beginning of her journey—and recovery is hard work. At various points, Norah describes her depression and anxiety as if they are external forces infiltrating her brain, personifying them in ways that really struck a chord with me. Personifying the disease is something I do a lot in my journaling because it allows me to separate Me from My Illness, rather than letting it define me. Norah feels like her brain is sabotaging her at various points, showing the very real (but often misunderstood) reality that you can intellectually know what’s happening to you inside your head but feel absolutely powerless to stop it.
A+ support system.
Another great aspect of this book is the characterization of Norah’s mother and her therapist. I love seeing good representation of therapy, both in how difficult is is (and how much you want to resist it) and how important the role of the therapist is in often pointing out aspects of the disease that you’re not aware of (or don’t want to acknowledge). Our culture has some deep mistrust of psychotherapy that goes back decades, and books that show how therapy really functions go a long way to debunking that stigma that prevents so many people from even seeking help in the first place.
Norah’s mother plays a big role in her recovery as well. Dealing with any mental illness is impossible to do alone, no matter how much the person might want to isolate themselves, whether from shame or from something bigger like agoraphobia. Throughout this novel, Norah’s mother encourages her, reminds her to breathe, reacts quickly to Norah’s symptoms, and supports her process. There are many people out there whose parents aren’t so supportive, but it was refreshing to read a loving and supportive parent.
the romance: yes, but also no.
While reading this book, I struggled to decide how I feel about the romance element. On the one hand, romance is often used as the “cure-all” in books about mental illness, something that’s incredibly problematic. Having lived with depression and having read dozens of teen romances as a kid, I grew up with the misconception that all I had to do was fall in love and everything would get better.
Despite my personal feelings, the romance in Under Rose-Tainted Skies doesn’t fall into that category. I think it’s important to note that having agoraphobia or social anxiety doesn’t negate a person’s ability to be lonely. This comes across in Norah’s constant checking of social media, her sadness in viewing other girls’ photos and knowing she can’t have what they do, and her back-and-forth interest and fear of Luke, her neighbor. As much as she’s terrified of having feelings for him and letting him into her life, she conquers that fear because she’s been so lonely for four years. This seems realistic to me.
While this is a romance, falling in love with Luke isn’t the magical cure for Norah’s mental health. Luke encourages her to challenge her fears, yes, and by the end of the novel Norah has made progress, absolutely. His continued feelings for her, in spite of her illness, convinces Norah that she is lovable, which is no doubt important. I don’t want to understate the importance of young girls like Norah seeing that it’s possible to find love.
At the same time, I wasn’t really invested in the relationship between Luke and Norah. I never really felt like I got to know him, which is perhaps partly because I was stuck inside Norah’s head for the entire book, and she’s pretty self-absorbed, understandably. As much as I wanted to believe in the romance, Luke felt more like a plot device to me, stuck in there as a catalyst to Norah’s mental growth as well as wish-fulfillment.
When I was 17, just being diagnosed with depression, starting medication and therapy, I was years away from being able to have a health relationship with a romantic partner. I went through several unhealthy, toxic relationships before I found my current partner, whom I love and who supports and loves me despite my continued depression. The fact is that, at 17, there are very few guys (or girls) who would behave the way Luke does: teenagers who aren’t personally aware of what mental illness is like just aren’t selfless enough to get involved with someone who’s struggling with mental illness. Yes, people are very often compassionate. But people—especially young people—are very easily frustrated and are often much more hurtful than Luke.
This is undoubtably my personal opinion, which is why this book is still 5 stars for me on the mental health rep alone. I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to know what it’s like to live with severe anxiety disorders and struggle against the tide of depression that accompanies it. I also recommend this one for anyone who’s ever wondered if love is possible when you’re dealing with mental illness—because it is, even if it takes years to find what Norah finds in Luke.
Have you read Under Rose-Tainted Skies? If so, what do you think? If you have recommendations of other mental health YA novels, or you just want to chat, hit up the comments. I love hearing from you!
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