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“I complained I had a pain in my legs,” Hilary Mantel writes in her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost,” “and I went to the doctor: and that was my big mistake.” The sharp jabs in her thighs and abdomen — and the sadness that grows in tandem — turn into a decade-long swirl of misery. Doctor after doctor probes her for mental imbalance: If they can’t see blood or blossoms of cancer, then a Valium ought to heal things.
Pain’s invisibility renders it mysterious — and suspect. Even the long-suffering protagonist in Mona Awad’s new novel, “All’s Well,” greets us with a dismissal of someone else’s aches. Miranda Fitch is lying on the floor of her office at a small Massachusetts college. She’s watching a commercial for a pain management drug called Eradica, with acting so hammy it makes you want to chide Big Pharma for its lack of ambition. The woman in the commercial “looks withered but desperate, pleading. She wants something from me. She is asking me to believe her about her pain. I don’t.”
Miranda, an assistant professor of drama, has her own troubles. It’s her back. Well, her back and her legs. And her hips. The pain is everywhere, really — her “foot being crushed by an invisible weight,” keeping one knee kinked and the other stiffened, turning her walk into a crone’s hobble. She sleeps on the floor in her “sad dress and cardigan,” downs handfuls of benzos and drags herself into rehearsals with the mutinous cast of a student club production of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
The first half of “All’s Well” is her final swirl around the drain. Once a success on the small-time theater circuit, Miranda toppled off a stage and lost her career, her dignity and then her husband. Doctors, friends and her chorus of physical therapists — a biblical set named Matt, Mark, Luke and John — cock their heads at her gasps of agony, urge more exercise or less, tut-tut over her negativity. “To continue to insist like this, Ms. Fitch, would really be undignified, embarrassing for both of us, really,” one cruelly insists. Is her pain legitimate? they wonder — and so do we.
Fiction is the natural breeding ground for sad sacks. The disconsolate have teary backstories to draw you in and nowhere to go but forward. Heathcliff, Hamlet, Gatsby. As Martin Amis put it, “Who else but Tolstoy has made happiness really swing on the page?” Literature is built on misery.
Physical pain is harder to render and nearly impossible to contemplate, which is why you see it done so rarely. Hanya Yanagihara manages it in “A Little Life” with Jude St. Francis, the Job of contemporary literature and a victim of nearly every physical cruelty imaginable. The suffering is the character. But as Janet Maslin put it, the onslaught “adds up to almost more misery than one novel can contain.”
Closer in spirit to Awad’s more ambivalent treatment is Helen Garner’s perfectly grating novel “The Spare Room,” in which a terminally ill woman descends upon a friend’s house to ride out a few of her last weeks. The friend tends to her agonies with care and then rapidly approaches the edge of sympathy — which is much closer than you’d imagine.
This is where I found myself in the first half of “All’s Well,” praying for some Eradica to turn down the volume on Miranda’s pity party. Am I as unsympathetic as her colleagues and friends, her exasperated ex? Or is Awad intentionally distorting Miranda into such a needy case that we’ll find her repellent despite ourselves? Discomfort and irritation are vital emotions for readers — but if the author is stage-managing us, she pushes a bit too far.
Then she pulls us back. Awad has a penchant for mixing dark humor and dark magic. In her last novel, the brilliant “Bunny,” a crew of twee MFA students in kitten-print dresses lure a cranky writer into their coven — where they regularly Frankenstein up handsome, doltish men and then dispose of them when the amusement wears off.
In “All’s Well,” Awad stirs in a heavy dose of Shakespearean enchantment. Bullied by Briana, a cocky student with mega-donor parents, Miranda sets to thwarting her. Briana wants “Macbeth,” not the tedious “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and the two plays form the scaffolding on which Awad props up her ideas. Here again we are tempted to side with Miranda’s enemies: “All’s Well That Ends Well” is a scrawny skeleton on which to drape a novel this expansive. “Macbeth” has more meat on its bones.
Forthwith, there are witches and brews, toil and trouble. Miranda meets three men in a bar — “the Weird Brethren” — who offer her a golden dram, serenade her with “C’Mon Get Happy” like late-stage Judy Garlands, stroke her cheek. The next morning her body begins to unkink itself.
The second half of “All’s Well” returns Miranda to herself — and supercharges her with a sensual charm. She slips on lace underwear, a clinging dress and heart-shaped heels. She stirs risotto, “Watched it bubble away. Watched the pearls of rice fatten and swell.” Without saying too much, the auditorium’s prop room is used for more illicit purposes than costume changes. She slips past joy straight into frenzy. Is it magic or mania?
I must confess a distaste for the continual onslaught of novels that position a woman as either supernaturally charged or dangerously unhinged — with men one doesn’t seem to invoke the other — so while Awad’s writing turns as cacklingly weird as I know it can be, I wish she’d embraced Shakespeare’s ethos and just cranked up the witchcraft without any ambiguity.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” neither a tragedy nor a comedy but a work addressing a social ill. Miranda clings to it like a drowning woman because of a star turn she took as low-born Helena, who tricks her way into the bed (and, perhaps, the affections) of aristocratic Bertram. Miranda isn’t above similar deception to get her old life (and old husband) back. It’s to Helena’s most famous line that she keeps returning: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven.” To what does Miranda owe her remedy? That’s intentionally kept under wraps, as baffling as her earlier lamentations.
Ultimately, “All’s Well” might have landed with more heft if it had abandoned the middle ground of the problem play and worn more boldly the smirking mask of comedy.
Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.