by Kathleen Founds
I came across this book because it was featured on the shelf of Boston’s newest independent bookstore, Papercuts JP. It is just the sort of thing I hope to find when I’m browsing in a good bookstore: an unexpected didn’t know I needed it until I saw it and probably wouldn’t have found it any other way title. Also: the cover features a cartoon squid wrestling with a unicorn and a blurb from George Saunders.
The interconnected stories follow the (mis)adventures of high school English teacher Laura Freedman and those in her orbit: students, roommates, parents dead and alive. It is possible the only thing more absurd than high school is Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions, the setting for many of the stories. (Think Weight Watchers + money making cult, with more than a nod to George Saunders’s sensibility in Civilwarland.)
The stories take the form of email exchanges, Wellness Point exercises, journal entries, as well as what feels wrong to call the more typical short story format. Lines like, “Damp toads sleeping in the cave of my chest awaken. One by one, they hop away” are definitely not typical.
Ridiculous, bad things happen to people. Absurdity, poverty, intense awkwardness, and the tendency to fall in the love (or think one has fallen in love) with not so good for you people have, as you would expect, painful consequences. Laura’s dead mother haunts her in more than one way. But all is not without hope, even if one has negative Wellness Points. There is, in the end, a measure of mercy.
Isn’t that what we really want to be able to believe?