I started reading When We Collided by Emery Lord (Bloomsbury, 2016) thinking, how could I like a book that seems to be the sad little sister of I’ll Give You the Sun, has a protagonist named after my grandma, who’s throwing her meds in the sea instead of her mouth. Vivi and Jonah had much to teach me about making assumptions (will I ever learn??)
Vivi is in Verona Cove for the summer with her artist mother, making the most of the loan of a beach-front, modernist bungalow.
“At night we gaze over the ocean, and we can’t believe the vastness or the blackness or how busy the waves are while the rest of the world sleeps.”
Jonah has lived his whole life in Verona Cove with his five brothers and sisters and the family restaurant. His Dad was the captain of a happy ship, until everything fell apart with his sudden death last year. Jonah’s mother can’t leave her bedroom as her grief consumes her. Jonah and his older brother and sister are only just keeping the family afloat, making sacrifices and juggling parental roles with their grief.
When Vivi and Jonah collide outside the pottery store, their lives take unexpected turns on this whirlwind summer roller-coaster. Vivi senses Jonah’s sadness and Jonah finds Vivi’s zest for life contagious. In chapters alternating their point of view, both fall hard in a summer romance to end all summer romances.
“Movies make it seem like the first kiss is the big deal, and it is. Hell yeah, it is. But they never tell you about the pressure for the second kiss – all that time to think and build up expectations.”
There is skinny dipping to be had, plays to perform and scavenger hunts to seek out, oh yeah, and kissing. Vivi isn’t sure whether she loves Jonah more or his rag-tag family. Jonah and the littles are just plain smitten.
“You simply have to laugh at yourself when you look like a grandpa on the top layer and a 1940s woman vacationing on the French Riviera underneath. That is to say, fabulous.”
Vivi’s larger than life personality is hard to distinguish from the hypomania of her bipolar disorder. She doesn’t want to think about what happened last March, let alone talk about it, and repeatedly reassures her mom that everything is fine. Of course she’s taking her meds (to the cliff, to throw into the wide Pacific Ocean).
“This warm, glowing sense that I’m not nearly as in control of this situation as I believed. The feeling rises in tiny champagne bubbles, fizzy and sweet and full.”
Her escapades start out being the hi-jinx of adolescence, but over the weeks of their summer fling, become more problematic as her stressors escalate. As the foreboding mounts, my worries of how this could possibly end any way but badly, wrenched at my heart strings.
“Depression, it settles like a shadow over your body while you sleep, and it mutes every frequency into blankness, into fog… I couldn’t feel.”
Emery Lord writes the highs and lows of bipolar disorder well, comparing Vivi’s depression with depression following grief and ordinary clinical depression, all three having similar symptons. There are different characters experiencing each of the three, but manifesting in slightly different ways. Even a character, like me, whose depression seemed to have no trigger:
“hormones, serotonin receptors, who knows?”
It’s always nice to find parts of yourself mirrored in fiction (take note Meg Rosoff). Vivi was initially diagnosed with depression and prescribed an antidepressant, until her hypomania became apparent. Vivi struggles with her diagnosis and treatment, including guilt at the consequences of her hypomanic episode. She tells us why she throws away her mood stabilizer, but still takes her antidepressant. Vivi thinks the Li of Lithium could be short for
“Line because it collected my highs and lows into a nice, flat line.”
This is a commom complaint of mood stabilizers. Vivi is not alone in wishing she could use other “elixirs” to sooth her busy brain. Jonah being Vivi’s main elixir of choice.
Vivi discusses medication with Jonah’s mother, hoping to convince her of its efficacy. She mentions the initial antidepressant which didn’t work as well as her current one,
“this one…I feel like myself still, on it.”
It doesn’t occur to her to take her own advice. Vivi’s doctor suggests trying other mood stabilizers or changing the dose, just like with her antidepressant. This therapeutic interaction reminded me of the scene in The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness when Mikey talks to his psychiatrist. Both are well written and provide readers who are apprehensive about their own therapy with examples of helpful interactions, even when, in Vivi’s case, she’s angry and antagonistic. As well as Vivi’s Doc pointing out, you don’t have to like your diagnosis, he suggests the ultimate advice for anyone coming to terms with a diagnosis:
“I’d want you to realize that bipolar disorder is just one facet of a multidimensional life.”
Words to live by. I came to this book from such a negative place, daring it to prove me wrong. When We Collided did just that, from every possible angle. No sad little sisters in sight, just hot pink glitter nail polish. If you like Jandy Nelson, read When We Collided. If you like Emery Lord, read I’ll Give You the Sun and The Sky is Everywhere.
Emery Lord writes mental illness and the struggles of treatment, with care and compassion, while throwing in romance, wild parties and mad-cap adventures.
“We are seventeen and shattered and still dancing. We have messy, throbbing hearts, and we are stronger than anyone could ever know.”