Disclaimer: Penguin Books gave me an advance copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.
Clare Fisher’s debut novel All the Good Things tells the story of main character and narrator Bethany Mitchell’s progression through therapy during her first few months in prison.
Beth was a young woman fresh out of the foster system and determined to start a new life for herself. She had a new job, a new best friend, a new lover, and happily but unexpectedly, a new child. But that was all before the Bad Thing. The thing that landed her in prison and convinced her she’s a ‘100% bad person’. The thing she keeps trying to run from.
[I’m tired of the word ‘thing’ already, but it’s going to be used a lot in this review. So the thing is…]
I enjoyed this book. It’s told in the format of a journal Beth addresses to her infant daughter whose childhood she will now never be able to witness. The heading of each chapter is an item from the list of ‘good things’ that Beth’s therapist Erika has asked her to write.
Because of its epistolary format, the novel is narrated in the first person, and Beth has a strong voice. She uses lots of slang and her tone alternates between contemplative and guarded. This took some getting used to, particularly when she used words or phrases that I disagree with, like “writing a list of good things may seem pretty retarded” on page 1. [To be clear, Fisher is not endorsing her character’s language; Beth learns to be more respectful and changes her tune over time.] But as I became familiar with Beth’s personality and communication style, I learned to like that narrative element.
My one criticism of the novel is that the prose has a tendency to turn heavy-handed from time to time. Sometimes I felt like I was being hit over the head with the moral of the story. Some examples:
- “I think it’s a good thing to find hope where any other person would agree there is none.”
- “It’s the things you don’t want to talk about that you really should.”
- “Love never makes things easy. What it makes them is shiny and if you’re not careful, they shine so bright, you stop seeing the thing beneath the shine.”
- “Because the story wasn’t about whether you get what you want or you don’t. It was about caring for people even though they’re not perfect. It was about daring to dream even when you’re in a place where dreams aren’t meant to reach — especially in those places.”
Part of me wants to believe that the moralizing is just an element of Beth’s voice and an important part of the first person narrative. But it still bothered me.
That quibble aside, I think the novel’s portrayal of therapy is well-done, and I appreciate that it addresses stigmas associated with mental illness and poverty. I also thought the pacing was excellent, especially near the end of the novel as we race with Beth toward the revelation of what she did to end up in prison and how she might come to terms with it. Reader and narrator alike must decide, as the official synopsis asks, ‘does anyone – even a 100% bad person – deserve a chance to be good?’
3/5 stars. (What does this mean?)