The Book of Susan
by Melanie K. Hutsell
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Pub Date 19 Jul 2022 | Archive Date Not set
New from a fresh voice in literary fiction comes this riveting deep-dive into one woman's experience with bipolar disorder and God.
Her mind has never failed her—until an ill-fated dinner party. Meet Dr. Susan Huffman: wife to chancery court judge Samuel Ellison, mother to adorable Ian, and college professor on track for tenure. She’s a woman who has always lived by her mind, with a plan and a purpose. But then new-in-town Lorraine Davis accepts an invitation to Susan and Samuel’s home, and the mysterious visions begin. Is God warning Susan about this newcomer? And if so, how can she protect her circle of friends, her family, and her life as she knows it? The Book of Susan is the spare and sympathetic recounting of a journey—from derailment, to diagnosis, to the discovery of a lifetime.
“In The Book of Susan, Hutsell takes the mysteries of the highs and lows of bi-polar illness and skillfully intertwines them on the page. Written from the unique perspective of Susan—the one who discovers her diagnosis—it’s a page-turner of story and yet a book to be slowly studied for the genuine wisdom it reveals.” —Katherine James, author of Can You See Anything Now? and A Prayer for Orion
“Profound and compulsively readable, The Book of Susan complexifies typical notions of Appalachia and offers us an unforgettable character in lyrical and accessible prose. Hutsell is a literary stylist who knows how to keep the reader in her grip.” —Silas House, author of Southernmost
“A riveting first-person account of a woman’s realization that she suffers from Bipolar I disorder. Hutsell’s protagonist accepts, overcomes, and reinvents her life through her newfound faith, discovered quite by accident due to the disease’s delusions. ‘God fled me on those days,’ she tells us when her illness begins to tear apart her carefully planned life. But Susan emerges transformed, and without sanctimony gives an account of the power of spiritual seeking to pick up the shattered pieces of life. Anyone who encounters a mental disorder in themselves or a loved one will be gripped by this powerful, raw, honest and intriguing voice.” —Rita Sims Quillen, author of Wayland
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Average rating from 5 members
This book is so beautifully important. Not only is the writing absolutely perfect, the prose had me wanting to tattoo lines on the marrow of my bones. I ugly sobbed three times and lost count after that. Utterly and crucially important read. I cannot stress how fucking incredible this book is.
What can you do when your life and your reality are crumbling around you?
The Book of Susan by Melanie K. Hutsell is a gripping story of a woman whose latent bipolar I disorder has begun to emerge. Through her eyes, we as readers are able to really experience how it can feel to be mentally ill. Rather than sensationalizing it, Hutsell shows the mundanity between mania and depression, in a way that seems almost painfully accurate.
Dr. Susan Huffman is erudite, judgemental, and, quite frankly, unlikeable.. Snobbish, she refers to others in her local Appalachian community as “philistines'', she and her husband Samuel, as well as a small circle of friends, seem to see themselves as above the others around them, and thus hold themselves to higher standards.
So, when Susan begins acting oddly, her husband seems to nearly immediately decide she’s unfit, as she doesn’t bounce back from a depressive episode and seems to have difficulty caring for their son Ian.
Inside her head, though, things are even more dire. Readers are immediately told that Susan experienced what she believed to be a religious vision (something that she, a highly educated modern woman, had heretofore disdained). Even worse, she becomes convinced that she must write a book that will explain everything to the world, and that a newcomer to her circle, Lorraine, is the embodiment of evil.
Interestingly, Susan is preparing for her tenure review, which focuses on a young Appalachian woman who purportedly experienced religious visions as well. This is implied to possibly be the inspiration to her psychotic symptoms. That, combined with the extreme stress of raising a child, preparing for the review, and holding herself to an impossible standard, it’s no wonder that her symptoms worsened at a rapid rate.
Although the psychotic instances are few, Susan has a manic episode after the initial hallucination. She writes all day and all night, goes to various churches and feels connected with everyone, and genuinely believes she can save the world. Not the most harmful symptoms, certainly, but alarming nonetheless.
After an incident involving their child, Samuel files for divorce and custody, leaving a newly-diagnosed Susan essentially adrift. This is where I really started to sympathize with Susan, and, for me, is what makes this book so engrossing. The writing made me care about her and her well-being, even though I personally felt she was an unlikeable character.
The moment when Susan realizes her vision and subsequent religious fervor is particularly heart-wrenching. Hutsell writes “All the insights, the beautiful feelings, the creeping suspicions. None had been anything. Meant anything. … My heart was spurting and dumping all the blood in my body into the floor,”(loc 1359-1360).
Speaking of which, religion is a big theme throughout the book. Its publisher, Paraclete Press, specifically publishes Christian books, music, and so on. By the end of the book, Susan realizes that although her visions weren’t real, God is, and she reconsiders her views on religious people. There’s an obvious bias here, but overall, the Christianity in the book doesn’t feel too smothering. Susan is a bit of a stereotypical atheist at first, immediately assuming that a student wants to argue her grade based on religious discrimination, and looking down on the religious in general. Most importantly, though, Hutsell emphasizes that Susan’s visions and manic religious purpose are indeed symptoms of her illness. She takes medication, goes to therapy, and even attends a support group for people with bipolar disorder (although her preconceived notions on the “crazy people” are rather offensive, it fits her character). Susan’s initial friend group includes two gay men and a woman who constantly laments the Iraq war, so things do appear more moderate than you might initially suspect based on the description of a Christian book by a Christian publisher.
This book isn’t perfect, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. Susan can be grating, her husband infuriating, but the story is well-paced and leaves the reader wanting to know the end to Susan’s story. So, although it isn’t exactly my usual taste, I do recommend you give it a read.
Overall rating: 4 stars
I approached reading The Book of Susan from my life experiences as a clinical psychologist. It is important to understand that bipolar disorder is not a defect of character but the result of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. While certain symptoms appear almost universally, the experience is unique to each individual. Fortunately, for the majority, the symptoms can be managed with medication and support.
The Book of Susan is a work of fiction that reads like a memoir. The author nimbly covers all of the bases: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behavior. Hutsell's prowess shows in her almost poetic description of the main character's descent into madness and her path towards recovery. She realistically captures the fracturing of logical thinking, the reluctance to admit that there is a problem, and the struggles of recovery. The Book of Susan provides an honest portrayal of the experience of bipolar disorder and I recommend it to you without hesitation.
Thank you to Paraclete Press and Netgalley for providing a complimentary copy for my enjoyment and review. Expected publication date is 7/19/22.
When I opened 'The Book of Susan' I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew it was a novel about mental health but was unprepared for it to be one of those books I couldn't put down until the end. 'The book of Susan is a book that chronicles more than its description.
As a college professor, wife, and mother of Ian, Susan is struggling. As a professor in the field of Appalachian Studies, she is fascinated by the journey of a woman from the past. It is Susan's tenure year at the small private college where she is a well-thought-of professor and as she researches the life of this other woman, her own grasp of reality starts to crumble. It is little things at first; a woman she doesn't like, imaginings from the spiritual world, uncontrollable emotions, reactions to her son's immature behavior. As tensions in her life build she is challenged with her diagnosis, her medication, and her own personal life with a man she once admired and trusted. There is a blur between reality, emotional reaction, and imaginings. Susan's entire life is changed and upset by her diagnosis and she must rebuild and reset her own self-worth in a world that has little understanding of mental illness. She feels dominated by those with the power of illusion and justice but finds solace and aid in friends from whom she is isolated.
This is the story of Susan. It is a well-told journey with a fascinating heroine in a beautiful setting in East Tennessee. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to more from Melanie K. Hutsell the author. Thanks to #NetGalley#TheBookofSusan for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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