Books

We Are All So Good at Smiling

In her second novel in verse, National Book Award finalist Amber McBride blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

Eighteen-year-old Whimsy has been hospitalized for the 11th time in 10 years. Although her grandmother taught the young conjurer that “Fairy Tales are real, / magic is real,” she also offered a warning: “Careful, Whimsy, / sometimes your own mind will unroot you.” When a green-haired boy named Faerry is admitted to the hospital, Whimsy instantly identifies him as Fae. 

When the two are released from the hospital, Whimsy discovers that Faerry’s family recently moved to her neighborhood. As Whimsy and Faerry are drawn both to each other and to the forest at the end of their street, they discover that their lives have intertwined before, and they embark on a journey to a haunted garden where the embodiment of Sorrow has trapped a number of fairy tale characters. To free them and return home, Whimsy and Faerry must face a truth they’ve spent years running from.

In a lengthy dedication at the beginning of We Are All So Good at Smiling, McBride explains that the novel “borrows from my personal experiences with clinical/major depression” and that she wrote it to remind herself and readers “that whenever you find yourself in Sorrow’s Garden—you have tools & you can find a way out.” The book’s significant back matter includes mental health resources, as well as a playlist, a glossary and more.

McBride conveys Whimsy’s struggle with depression through unusual and striking language, text alignment and structure. Words and phrases frequently appear in parentheses, mimicking intrusive thoughts. When Whimsy speaks, the text is aligned on the right-hand side of the page, literally separating her speech from the rest of the text and reflecting the way her depression alienates her from herself. McBride often establishes and then changes structural patterns, mirroring the disorientating nature of recovery. 

We Are All So Good at Smiling elevates everything that made McBride’s debut novel, Me (Moth), such a success. Readers who loved Ibi Zoboi’s American Street or Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja will especially enjoy its blend of magic and emotion.

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