Witches, Golden Remedy, and All’s Well that Ends Well

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Author Mona Awad’s All’s Well features protagonist Miranda Fitch, a drama professor who suffers from chronic pain yet is determined to stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a “problem play” that Professor Fitch describes as “…neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between.” She could also be describing Awad’s novel, which is funny, dark, at times frustrating and confounding.

The story begins with Miranda, an untenured assistant professor at a small New England college. The school’s theatre department, such that it is, has dwindled to two people, Miranda and her friend Grace (“the bitches of the English Department,” Miranda calls them). Miranda is hell bent on having her largely untalented students put on All’s Well that End Well. The mutinous students, however, want the more accessible Macbeth as the semester’s production. While Miranda floats through a haze of pain killers, white wine, and full-body pain, her students await her in the theatre. And wait. And wait. Again.

It’s only after Miranda meets a trio of mysterious, unnamed doctors in the local bar that she (and we) get respite from her pain. In a bit of surreal magic that will feel familiar to those who read Awad’s 2019 novel Bunny, the trio — reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth — offer a pair of gifts. For Miranda, the ability to physically pass her pain on to others. To the school, a large endowment. All they ask for in exchange is “…a really good show.” Specifically, a production of All’s Well that Ends Well.

I say “we” get respite from Miranda’s pain because that’s exactly how it feels. By having Miranda be the story’s narrator, Awad puts us in intimate proximity to the pain that occupies her protagonist’s body and her time. Having cost Miranda her career (it started when she fell off of a stage while performing Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well), her friendships, and her marriage, Miranda’s pain is front-and-center for the first hundred pages and it’s quite claustrophobic and uncomfortable. When she finally found relief so did I, and that’s a point of the book: we don’t want to look at female pain. We want it to go away so that we can feel better. If I’m being honest, by “we” I mean “men.”

Miranda sees one physical therapist after another, all male (four of whom are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They bend, twist, crack and placate with their “bro good looks” and “blue polo shirts.” At one point, Miranda is given a video to watch which features an animated, anthropomorphized brain who subtly describes that often times, pain only exists in our heads.

Things get surreal from here and the book‘s conclusion has left some scratching their heads. If you’re put off by the bizarre and a book whose climax requires interpretation, you might find All’s Well frustrating. I do feel the book could be a little shorter and Miranda’s descriptions of her pain can feel relentless, but that’s a point the story is trying to make, I believe. You want to look away; don’t. You want to be free of this; no.

Awad’s writing is beautiful and witty. I found myself re-reading sentences just for the pleasure of them. For example, Miranda describes the actress in a medication ad thusly: “…she attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm.”

I thoroughly enjoyed All’s Well (and Bunny). I’m quite looking forward to what Awad writes next.

Book review: A Deadly Education

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, the first title in her planned Scholomance trilogy, is the story of a young female wizard in a school of magic. Galadriel, or El as she prefers to be called, has a strong natural ability for the dark arts, which she’s determined to avoid. When the school’s golden boy, Orion Lake, senses her dark tendencies, he suspects her in the recent disappearance of a classmate. As the two get closer, new threats and opportunities arise for them both.

Novik has created yet another smart, compelling world with A Deadly Education. While there’s conflict between El, Orion the other students, it’s the teacher-free boarding school itself that poses the most significant threat. Essentially, it’s the educational equivalent of the uncle who teaches his nephew to swim by tossing him into a pool. I won’t give too much of that away here, but it works well.

The book also deals with the disparity between classes of people. Essentially, there are two classes of students: the “enclavers,” backed by a collection of established wizards in the world, and everyone else. The former are better equipped, prepared and supported in their academic career than the latter, which at the Scholomance can have deadly consequences. It’s not heavy-handed and easy to extrapolate into the real world.

The characters were quite well done. While El is a bit too petulant at times, her behavior becomes more understandable as her background is revealed. Likewise, shining star Orion has his own issues to deal with, and he becomes more sympathetic as time goes on.

The concept of the school — the setting for the entire book — really works. It feels dangerous, and is. Novik’s vision of a magic boarding school is very smart and well executed. There’s a good mix of action (wizards v. monsters if you’re into that sort of thing), relationships, and wry humor.

I’ll note that the book did focus quite a bit on the relationships between the teen students. As a reader in his 50’s I’d find my attention waning during some of these scenes, but that’s a function of my age, not Novik’s writing. I’m likely outside of this book’s intended demographic, so keep that in mind.

As I mentioned before, I also felt that El tended to be a little too sarcastic, and standoffish. Even when her classmates were being nice to her, she tended to reject that. I’d find myself thinking, “Come on, El. Give them a break.” But that’s me.

If you like the Harry Potter series or The Magicians books, you’ll enjoy A Deadly Education. Magic, action, teen drama, social commentary and a wonderfully clever setting result in a fun book. I’m looking forward to book number two.