An incredible window into the mind of a depressed teenager that tackled serious subject manner with a careful hand, creating an unforgettable story.
Plot (via Goodreads)
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.
I don’t usually read books that deal with mental illness. I’ve read a few—contemporary and fantasy—but few of them “worked” for me, for various reasons.
This book was different.
I didn’t pick up IKOAFS on my own. A friend of mine wrote an incredibly touching review of it for my journalism class and I was the editor that handled it. I’d never seen the book before, but after reading about how important this book was for my friend (who struggles with depression like the MC, Craig), I asked if I could borrow it. Once I started reading it, I read it in two sittings.
This book is raw and powerful. Craig, the protagonist, suffers from depression, and the story (told in first person) vividly portrays the mental state Craig was in. I’ve talked to friends who suffer from depression, so I already felt like I knew some of what Craig would be going through, but being inside his head gave me an incredible insight into his thought process as he battled depression.
I enjoyed Craig’s character. In the beginning, I was afraid that he was going to be a carbon copy of the Perks of Being a Wallflower MC, but as the story progressed, Craig developed unique characteristics and blossomed into a complex and realistic character. His voice conveys the truth of who he is: a teenage boy trapped in a war with his mind, struggling to not be defined by it. Indeed, Craig’s voice—humorous and self-deprecating, frustrated and hopeful—was the most powerful and realistic part of the book.
I loved the rest of the characters as well. The other patients in the psychiatric hospital were some of my favorite characters in the entire book, lending subtle (or sometimes not-no-subtle) humor to the story. Each one of them got their own clear personality, even if that personality was a quirk of their particular mental illness. The subtle romance that developed throughout the plot was perfect; it added another layer to the plot without taking away from the overall message of personal growth.
Craig’s family and friends were clearly imperfect, and some of their actions pissed me off, but I never hated any of them completely. They were human, and the plot showed both good and bad qualities of each character. In this way, I was able to forgive them (instead of continuing to hate them even after the MC has forgiven them, as usually happens to me in books like this).
The plot of IKOAFS is simple and moderately paced. There are no ohmygod cliffhanger moments, but I was happy about that. They would have seemed gimmicky in what was (without them) a story that struck me as intensely realistic. The meat of the story comes from Craig’s ups and downs as he comes to terms with and tries to overcome his depression.
IKOAFS is a story with a lot of messages, about life, love, mental illness, high school. Thankfully, it never came off as preachy, with the themes subtly woven into the plot so that the reader discovered them for themselves instead of being hit over the head with them.
Though IKOAFS deals most centrally with depression, I think this is a book everyone can relate to in part. Craig got into the prestigious high school of his dreams, but then his depression hit at the beginning of freshman year. Suddenly unable to compete with his peers, Craig struggles with intense feelings of inadequacy and being overwhelmed by the multi-faceted expectations of high school today. This part of the story touched me deeply, and I doubt there is a high school or college student out there who wouldn’t connect with Craig’s panic, at least a little.
IKOAFS never made me feel depressed, even though I was in Craig’s head. Somehow his voice, plus the humorous moments in the plot and the optimism of other characters, was able to keep this book from dragging me down. It sounds insensitive, but I was hesitant to read this book because I was afraid of it putting thoughts I didn’t want in my head. And yes, Craig has suicidal thoughts. Craig is undeniably depressed and the reader is privy to his feelings.
But the book is ultimately positive. There is no perfect or cheesy fix-all ending, and the humor never feels insensitive or out-of-touch. IKOAFS is exactly that—kind of a funny story, with a serious focus and message. It is definitely worth reading, whether you suffer from depression or not. It’s the kind of story that breeds compassion, and if that isn’t the kind of book that the world needs regarding these issues, I don’t know what is.
I couldn’t write this review without extending my horror and sadness at the news that Ned Vizzini committed suicide in 2013. This book came out his own time in a psychiatric ward, giving hope and a promise of survival to those suffering from depression and to those around them. There aren’t words for the knowledge that Vizzini didn’t get the hopeful ending that he gave Craig. He left behind an incredible piece of literature that can hopefully help others through depression.