Author: Karen Fortunati
Length: 402 Pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (October 11, 2016)
Review Written By: Kelly Furgal Toye (writeeatread.com)
“I was a thing that never should have been.”
The Weight of Zero isn’t your typical Young Adult novel… and I loved it. The foreword mentions that current Young Adult stories are failing teens with mental illness, and it’s true. Most of the related novels recently published feature the protagonist being ’saved’, whether it be from a sudden love interest or a new best friend. We all know this isn’t necessarily how life works and The Weight of Zero is so much more than that. It focuses on the stigma attached to mental illnesses, the internal dialogue one may struggle with, medications and the fear around which ones to take, and the therapist sessions that can feel useless, but also beneficial.
In The Weight of Zero, author Karen Fortunati immediately thrusts us into the life of the main character, Catherine. Catherine is a high school student who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. One year ago, when her grandmother passed away, she attempted suicide and was soon after informed of her mental illness. The reader immediately understands that Catherine views her illness as a ‘mental defect’ and sees it as a burden on everyone who knows and loves her.
Catherine reflects on when she was first diagnosed with bipolar and continues to struggle with the permanency of the illness. She tells herself that she’s never going to be ‘normal’ again and doesn’t allow anyone to get close to her, because in her mind, she won’t live through her next low point. As we know, those with bipolar can have elevated moods (manic), and can also experience deep depression. After Catherine’s extremely low point one year prior, her mother has since constantly asked her what her mood is, on a scale of one to ten. Catherine often lies, saying that she’s usually at a ‘six’.
Catherine’s nickname for mania’s flipside is the lowest on the number scale… it’s Zero, and it’s because she knows that Zero is inevitable and will come for her again. The indescribable, unspeakable weight of Zero is the feeling of hopelessness and lack of emotion. Every night, Catherine lines up her pill bottles, waiting with bated breath for the deep feeling of Zero to hit her again… because she knows it will eventually come.
I know this all sounds so bleak, but hang in there. This is just the background information, and as a reader who doesn’t have bipolar, it was so interesting for me to read how Catherine navigated learning of her illness, how she interpreted information about bipolar, and how she channeled her emotions. Fortunati does such an incredible job at putting the reader inside Catherine’s head, I truly felt like I understood her character. But there is so much more to Catherine than how she describes herself: she is funny, intelligent, passionate, cute, and a great dancer.
Catherine unwillingly attends group therapy sessions afterschool and soon finds that despite her best attempts, she begins to connect with her therapy-mates. They all have different issues, but Catherine finds strength and healing through listening to each of them discuss their reasons for being there. Catherine is also assigned a history project at school, where a boy she didn’t know jumps at the chance to be partnered with her. It turns out that this boy has had a crush on her since he first saw her dance in freshman year, and has been wanting to get to know her ever since. Catherine can’t believe it, and is skeptical at first; she is so used to being bullied because she is seen as different and can’t understand why someone would want to get to know her. Her feelings slowly change, she begins to feel confidence, and she begins to open up.
Things seem to be looking up for Catherine at this point in the book, but of course, it isn’t just one of these things that makes Catherine realize that she does have a future and that she is going to be okay. Catherine suddenly finds that she isn’t lying to her mother about feeling like a ‘seven’ on her mood level scale, and sometimes she actually feels like a ‘nine’. This scares her, as she still knows that Zero is looming in the back of her head, threatening to appear, but she continues to press forward. Catherine finds inspiration in her history project, her therapy sessions, and the bond with her mother, the new boyfriend in her life, and her new friends from therapy. She slowly finds a way to cope with her illness and understands that when manic and depressive episodes occur, she has the tools, resources, and support system she needs to deal with them. But it isn’t easy for Catherine to come to this conclusion but when she does, I cried.
The Weight of Zero is one of those books, like Wonder, that everyone, young and old, should read. It gave me such a real perspective of the inner thoughts of a teenaged girl with bipolar disorder. It made me giggle, roll my eyes, clench my hands in frustration (why can’t Catherine see how great she is?!), relate and, of course, tear up. By the end of the novel, I was crying ugly, happy tears, and when I closed my book at two in the morning, I felt like I had just read a story about people I actually knew. The research done for this book was formidable, and the writing was on par. Whether you struggle with mental illness, know someone else who does, or just love a great read, pick up The Weight of Zero today. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but it’s a ride that is worth getting onto.
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