Realism: Kim Hood’s Plain Jane

**Spoilers. I tried my very best to write this without spoilers, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry. Just to reiterate: SPOILERS.**

I got a number of book recs from the lovely Jacq the other week and after my race to complete Broken Sky I was happy to settle down with a book Jacq had been really excited about – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Kim Hood’s Plain Jane is about a girl who is living in the shadow of her little sister’s cancer diagnosis. She feels like a ghost in her own home and is becoming accustomed to being secondary to her sister’s illness. Jane is skipping school and going through the motions of existing, her weeks a monotonous stream of hospital visits ending in weekends hanging out with her boyfriend, Dell, who she is probably not actually in love with at all. Discontent with the prospect of living forever stuck in a small town containing just over 400 people, she longs to get out. When Jane meets Farley, despite his hippie notions of fate and distorted ideas of what’s really important, she starts to see that maybe she isn’t as stuck as she thought.

I love a good contemporary. I love it more when there are elements of realism – and I mean REAL realism, not the sort of realism that isn’t likely to ever happen to any living person but still necessitates a disclaimer that persons or events within the story are fictional yadda yadda… I like my real books to be real. With Plain Jane – Kim Hood achieved just that.

Let’s break it down (she says, in her best impression of a rapper) – The four elements of realism that stood out most for me in Plain Jane:

  1. I immediately adored the idea of a book written from the point of view of the sibling-of-the-kid-with-a-cancer-diagnosis. I know it’s been done before, but it’s really poignantly done in the case of Plain Jane as you can tell almost from the get-go that Jane is suffering from depression, which instantly adds a different facet to the story. Jane is essentially ignored by her family and can’t help but seem to add extra strain on her parents by acting out. Inexperienced as I am in terms of dealing with a long-term family illness, the premise of Plain Jane is clearly shown and one can’t help but feel incredible amounts of empathy for the entire family and what they’re going through. Each character, even the secondary ones, are well-developed and essentially real people, which is all one can ask for in a book really!
  2. The sister relationship between Jane and Emma is wonderfully realistic. Emma is sick but it doesn’t stop them from having arguments and acting the way sisters normally do. Jane acknowledges throughout the book that she loves Emma, but doesn’t necessarily always like her – which sums up sibling relationships pretty well during teenage years. Emma is eager to please while Jane is so hung up on the fact that she may never be anything but a thorn in the side of her family that she goes out of the way to antagonise them further. Siblings are so often like chalk and cheese (God I hate that saying) that seeing how different Emma and Jane are, even in terms of the illnesses they both ultimately suffer from, is kind of a morbidly nice comparison. (I can’t think of a better way of expressing how I liked their differences. It’s not full of nice differences but it was enjoyable to read)
  3. Dell. Oh, Dell. Dell didn’t do anything wrong. There was nothing wrong with Dell as a person, except for perhaps his blatant lack of awareness of anything Jane might like or enjoy doing. He was a 17 year old boy who wanted a girlfriend and tried his best to do something nice for her birthday, but it was the wrong sort of nice. I felt sorry for him throughout the book – he cared but just wasn’t very good at showing it. There’s also the possibility that he just thought he cared about Jane but was really stuck in his ways, which I guess was proven when he walked into a diner holding Tracey’s hand. Most 17 year old boys are full of notions, and those notions usually include having a girlfriend – but exclude the reality of having a girlfriend, which often includes consoling them when they’re upset, knowing things about them as a person, and really doing anything to make them feel safe. Dell felt real as I think most girls will at some point have experienced a guy who wasn’t bad or nasty, but just didn’t know how to really be in a relationship.
  4.  I loved Farley – hippie, discordant with the small town life everyone in Jane’s world was accustomed to; he’s the perfect antithesis to Jane herself. Farley’s open, willing and friendly, while Jane is guarded, reluctant and sullen. Even though Farley wears Birkenstocks and socks (Nope. just nope.) he is a wonderful person, capable of understanding what Jane is going through to as much of an extent as possible, and sort of demonstrates that even though there are a lot of people in the world who won’t know what to do or say in response to something awful happening, there are people who will go out of their way to try their best to at least be there for you.

Now. There were two particular elements in the book that I really loved. The first one was the lack of happy cancer ending. Cancer claims thousands of people a year. Other people survive it with just hair loss. But for many, they lose more than just their hair. In Emma’s case, she was choosing to give up something she’d based her entire existence around. Without a leg, she’d never dance again. She survived cancer (again), but it still took a part of her away. It took away a part of her identity. She will forever be a cancer survivor, because her survival is etched into her physical appearance. I think people forget (or were never aware of the fact) that cancer isn’t a short or long-term illness. It becomes that person’s entire existence. It is all-consuming, physically and mentally. For Emma, she had survived childhood cancer and not only had it had taken an emotional toll on her, sapping away the last of her childhood, it had, ultimately, physically affected her too. Sometimes there’s no other option. Kim Hood drove that home in the closing chapters of Plain Jane. Cancer can often only end in one of two ways, and while Emma lived, it wasn’t without its consequences.

Finally, (and part two of two on Things I Loved) I adored the biggest twist in the book: that Jane was suffering with Bipolar Disorder. From my point of view it was brilliantly done; I have with bipolar-II (bipolar disorder’s distinctly less dangerous and less severe but still crappy sister) and a working knowledge of Bipolar I (thank you, psychology degree), and so from the get-go the warning signs – Jane’s depression, irritability and intentional isolation were all signs of a depressive episode. Then the lack of sleep, confusion, loss of time and mania began to spiral for her. I was almost able to feel her distress levels, particularly when she was seeing repeated images in her head.  Plain Jane really gives insight into the more serious side of bipolar disorder and will hopefully bring comfort to BD sufferers who may pick up this book, and also enrich the knowledge of readers who may not know anything about BD in the first place. Again, there was no specific happy ending for Jane. She got out of hospital and was quite clear on the fact that a manic episode may happen again in her lifetime. There is no cure, only time and hope that medication will stabilise her. I also liked her uncertainty around Farley – I as a reader felt as though he’d be more than able to cope with another episode, but Jane really drove home the stigma and worry and concern that people who suffer from mental illness tend to carry about as a result of that illness. I’m almost positive that Plain Jane is the first book I’ve read where a protagonist had bipolar disorder, and that in itself was wonderful.

TL;DR: Plain Jane is a wonderful dose of contemporary realism and a fantastic example of a book written the way it should be: shown, not told.

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