I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing and befriending Kathryn Treat. When I won a copy of her book on Kindle, I was excited to read it and decided I’d review it also. If you’ve read my other book review, you know I can be a harsh critic. I do hope that my words here will not loose me a friend. 😉 But I do think that because we are friends she knows that I have a wry and sarcastic sense of humor. I know that trait is apt to hurt feelings, so let me say before I begin that I do like this book.
By pure chance, I happened to read this book alongside the original Dracula by Bram Stoker. In a way they were good companions, both being about illness and written in a journaling style. While I thought it worked well in the classic work of fiction, I did not like this choice for the true story by Kathryn. In many ways it read similarly to her blog, which should come as no surprise since both are penned by the same author. The reason it surprised me is that a blog and a novel are two very different beasts.
Let me explain. I identify myself as a screenwriter. The stories I write fit best in that medium. I recently decided to try blogging as well – but wouldn’t it be jarring if I wrote my blog the way I write scripts?
INT. RACHEL’S HOUSE – NIGHT
Harry Potter is playing on the TV. Rachel sits on a pallet of pillows and blankets, the trappings of recovery piled around her. Empty plates and cups sit next to pill bottles and heating pads.
“Hey everyone. I’m not feeling as well as I’d hoped today. My mind is getting restless, but I’m still too tired to be up and about, so I decided to work on a review for you.”
Well that would be weird. It’s an extreme version of how I felt reading her book after reading her blog. But that’s not a terrible thing, just unexpected.
The story chronicles Kathryn’s transition from a healthy life to one with chronic illness. It’s an interesting read, especially since her illness (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) was brought on by an exposure, which in terms of story telling is more exciting than an illness simply showing up because one was born with it or something like that. She includes excerpts of original poetry and bits from her personal diary, but again, since the book reads like a diary the excerpts aren’t as strong as if they were contrasted against more traditional story-telling.
Perhaps contradictory to this, the excerpts from her diary were my favorite part. They were raw and full of feeling. One major problem with the book I felt was the lack of emotions. It focuses a lot on facts and less on experience. I feel that the book’s main intent is awareness, which I can admire. Awareness is the reason I blog. This can be a problem, though, because it does begin to feel like a classroom lecture at times. It’s very educational, but it doesn’t draw me in or help me to sympathize with the characters. It’s almost like a history book.
That leads me to what I found was the biggest problem with the book. Constancy. This, again, reminded me of the blog format. The book tended to over explain a lot of things. For instance, I think it defined what an “epi pen” was every time it was mentioned, and in almost the same wording every time. On a blog that sort of repetition would make sense, as readers come and go from your story, but here it got very annoying. I was further annoyed to find a glossary at the back – if one is going to have a glossary, why not keep the definitions there and not put them in the story at all?
Yet with all the over-explaining, I also felt like much was under-explained. Obviously MCS is a complex illness, and medical jargon is unavoidable. But I was surprised to find that some things were defined over and over while others were never defined at all. Plus some things that were defined still didn’t make sense to me. I felt like I wasn’t quite educated enough to read this book, but that doctors may enjoy it a bit more. Again, it didn’t feel like leisure reading, it felt like research.
Medical jargon aside, though, other things were unexplained or under-explained. Often characters were mentioned by name out of the blue that I wouldn’t recall having been introduced to, while others were introduced and explained every time they appeared. This made it hard to get into the “story” side of everything and the relationships – which is usually what I look forward to most about a book.
This reminds me of my biggest pet peeve about the piece, though it’s not really a story problem. It’s more of a personal preference. There were many times when the names of doctors would be omitted, which is obviously understandable. But I do wish that Katheryn had either assigned them fake names (i.e. We’ll call him Dr. John) or used initials (i.e. Dr. J). In the book, Kathryn uses Dr. –, which is a huge issue as she often uses dashes grammatically, causing situations like this:
After speaking with Dr.– – who mentioned you were unwell – blah blah blah
SO MANY DASHES.
It was bad.
I wanted very badly to love this book by my dear friend, but I feel that in many ways it is unfinished. I think much of the inconsistencies in explanations could be solved by further editing. I also felt like the plot line was a bit odd in that at the end it seems to just stop rather than resolve. I understand better than most that illness doesn’t go away or lend itself to tidy endings, but I felt like Kathryn was explaining things at a good pace as they happened and then suddenly the book went “Now, this, this, and this are happening. And I’ll go on to fight this battle… etc. etc.” and the timeline became confusing. I wondered why the span of time shown in the story was chosen, or if it was chosen at all. Again, as it reads like a journal, I thought perhaps it was just a chunk of a bigger story, but I couldn’t see why this chunk was picked to be published in a novel.
Being a screenwriter, I’m a stickler for form, and I confess nothing bothers me more than seeing a good story in the wrong form. A story best told onscreen won’t play well as say, a poem or an oral story. I wonder if Allergic to Life belongs in the novel form.
It’s not a bad story – far from it. It reads wonderfully in blog form, I already know that. Kathryn’s blog is one of my favorites, and one of the few that I get in my inbox and read every post religiously. I almost feel like Kathryn is a bit freer on her blog – I think there are more feelings and more “story,” with less facts and textbook reading. The story is there in the book but it needs life, it needs a heart. One can imagine themselves in the story and hypothesize how it might feel to be Kathryn, but I do wish she would tell us in her own words. Give us a catharsis. Show us the drama. I learned a lot, but it would stick more if it was attached to a great story.
Perfect example: take genetics. You learned about genetics in school. Do you remember much about it?
What about movies like Jurassic Park or Gattica? Do you remember anything about genetics in there? Could you tell me how they bred dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? I bet you could. I bet you’d reference that goofy DNA cartoon, but you’d get the facts across too.
That’s because there was a reason you wanted to learn that stuff. You cared about Dr. Grant and Ian Malcolm, you were frightened with them when you saw the beasts, and you needed the knowledge they did. As wonderfully intentioned as Kathryn’s book is, it will be more effectively met with a good story. A memorable story will make the knowledge more memorable too.
It is a good book, and I did learn a lot. It just really felt like learning, and it was a struggle. There is great potential for a gripping, emotional story, but as it is the reader must fill in much of the blanks themselves. If you’re imaginative and loved those “choose your own adventure” books, you may see it. But you have to look for it. Hard.
I suppose, as always, this sounds like a very harsh critique. To quote my favorite Pixar movie…
So please give it a read and judge for yourself. It’s bursting with information and it’s a unique issue that more people should know about. Kathryn has done much to further awareness of this devastating illness that can strike anyone and any time, and I sincerely hope awareness of it will spread like wildfire. I could not judge so harshly if it was not as gravely important a piece as it is.
Buy the book here.