By Sahana C.
This book is cathartic. It feels like therapy, except things get way worse, more cringey, and infinitely harder to handle before the payoff hits, and all of the suffering of the previous two-thirds of the book ease into something manageable and even likable.
I will not lie – I judged this book by its cover. There was something about the whimsical nature of the rabbits juxtaposed with the bold cursive proclaiming “everyone in this room will someday be dead” that struck me. What room? The very room I was in? I looked around the adult fiction section of the Savage Branch surreptitiously to see who was nearby. I went back up to the front desk, still holding onto the book, and thinking, “Yeah, actually, that’s true.”
Dear Reader, obviously. This is not a new concept, that everyone, one day, dies. But sometimes, a book like this will bring this into perspective, throw a new light on something you know deep down but don’t consider very often. Emily Austin’s debut novel has moments I’m sure she would categorize as semi-autobiographical (I threw the “semi” in there for her sake, as the main character, Gilda, is truly a disaster), especially since there are moments in the book that I felt were semi-autobiographical and was alarmed at how close Gilda had gotten to my reality.
Emily Austin was not referring to the Savage Branch when she was referencing her room. She was talking about every room Gilda, a noted hypochondriac, ever walked into. Gilda is a twenty-something lesbian and atheist, well known in the emergency room at her local hospital to the point that the janitorial staff know her by name. When we first meet her, she has just been in a car accident and broken her arm, a more physically obvious issue than the anxiety that normally brought her in for a check-up. In an attempt to get her anxiety under control, Gilda follows a flyer for free therapy to a Catholic church, where she meets Father Jeff and accidentally gets a job instead of therapy.
From there, Gilda searches for a missing cat, deals with her younger sibling’s deteriorating mental health, tries to keep her old friends, tries to pretend like she’s Catholic, well-meaningly catfishes an old woman, and tries to solve a murder mystery that might not have involved murder, actually, all while trying to stay afloat.
I read this on a long plane ride, which perhaps compounded the feeling of claustrophobia as Gilda kept tangling herself further and further in her web of lies. It meant that as I was reading an especially cringey section and closed the book for a moment, I couldn’t get up and go for a long walk, like I normally do. I was confined to the middle seat, stuck between two people who were fast asleep and were completely unaware of my distress, and, much like Gilda, all I could do in that moment was keep going. Keep reading and hope that somehow, something was going to get better.
Thank goodness it did, because otherwise, also like Gilda, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. This book is wholly about the existential dread that comes with being an adult and looking around to realize your general existence is not exactly what you thought it’d be, then figuring out how to cope with that anyway.
I would like to make it very clear that I do, indeed, like this book. I want everyone to read it, despite how difficult it can be. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, describing it as “anxious queer fiction” and asking friends, “Have you ever felt completely directionless and stuck? Well. Gilda will make you feel better. Because she had it worse.” I think if we all take a moment to reflect, the way Gilda does, on the way things are going, we might not always like what we see, but at least we know that we’re not alone in our discontent.
(And if you really want to feel like you’ve got a community, look at the Goodreads reviews for this book here.)
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.