A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland (review)
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Sutherland, Krystal A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares. Putnam, 2017 [368p]
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-399-54659-4 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-0-399-54661-7 $10.99
Reviewed from galleys R* Gr. 7-10

Esther Solar firmly believes that her family is under a curse to suffer from debilitating fears of the things that will ultimately kill them. Their father has become agoraphobic after a stroke, their mother insists on wards, rituals, and animal familiars to protect her luck, and her brother Eugene keeps the house ablaze with light at all times to hold his demons at bay. Esther herself maintains a long list of things she fears, and Jonah, an old friend, wants to help her overcome those fears one by one through a process of exposure that he will film so that she can see her progress. Though wildly reluctant, Esther faces what she thinks are her worst nightmares, gradually coming to realize that her fears are a hedge against griefs: the mental illnesses and addictions that have caused her parents to emotionally abandon their children, Eugene’s suicidal depression, and, most of all, the idea that, instead of fated inevitabilities, these might all be problems that can be met with courage. The novel focalizes these weighty problems through Esther’s denial-laced perspective, a technique that imbues them with energy, fascinating histories, wisps of humor and, ultimately, grace. While black Jonah and white Esther are an interracial couple, the conflicts they encounter center on Esther’s attempts to camouflage the larger-than-average size, flaming red hair, and large, distinctive freckles that made her bully bait and caught Jonah’s attention as her defender in elementary school. Her eccentric costumes act as a quirky metaphor for the ways she deals with the more serious issues in her life; her arc from debilitating fear to courageous work is equal parts inspiring and good fun.

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