A Lukewarm but Informative Narrative
Content Warning: mental illness
By: Andrea Peterson
Andrea Peterson’s On the Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety had the potential to be such a great book. As someone who struggles to navigate her own mental minefield, I was really looking forward to an account of how another person manages. Unfortunately, I found myself incredibly bored while reading. Peterson writes for The Wall Street Journal and her writing style screams, “Journal.” Even though the sentences are beautifully structured, the entire novel reads like one long (but not terribly interesting) news story.
The major flaw with On the Edge is that it is part autobiography, part medical journal. Whenever Peterson summarizes a scientific study relating to a point she has made, she follows it up with more of her personal experience. It’s as if she’s saying, “and me, me too! That thing happened to me, here look!” which I found completely unnecessary. If the book had been fully one or the other, perhaps it would have been easier to read.
I’m not sure this novel could stand on its own as a memoir though, because the personal information is so repetitive. The repetition might not have been so frustrating if she provided more details of what it felt like for her to have a panic attack. I understand that reliving panic attacks is not ideal, but knowing more than just the physical symptoms is helpful for the audience. I would have loved to hear more about how her surroundings appeared to her during an attack, and I would have been interested in hearing a few perspectives from the people closest to Peterson (rather than her retelling their reactions and how they must have felt). A novel like this one needs to have strong emotional appeal in order to make the audience care about what is happening. It needs to be written in such a way that we understand the urgency, despondency, and pain of panic attacks. Bland descriptions such as, “racing heart,” “dizziness,” “difficulty breathing” are truthful, but not particularly helpful. Instead, she could have written something like, “My beats wildly against my rib cage while my air passage shrinks to the size of a pinhead. I will myself to move forward as the world around me turns itself on its head.” Perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic.
I enjoyed the medical studies Peterson included in the novel. The style she used to write On the Edge is much better suited to relaying information than to emotional appeal. She includes conversations with various scientists to underline the studies she explains. Those who are not interested in science might struggle through these sections, but I found them much more interesting to read than the information about her personal life.
Peterson’s situation is one of privilege: she has the time and resources to seek adequate treatment, and the people around her are (generally) supportive. Peterson herself points this out, but her privilege makes her unrelatable to me. Not everyone can find supportive friends and family, not everyone can go on yoga retreats, not everyone can even afford healthcare. Growing up, I was told that as a Black woman, I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as much as people of a fairer shade. This essentially translated to me refusing to take sick days (though I desperately needed them) until one day I found myself practically paralyzed in bed, unwilling to shower or feed myself. I’m a little better about giving myself the time I need now, but there are limits. I couldn’t afford to take a semester off of university or to take less credits because I’d lose my scholarship. Sure, my grades suffered, but at least I still got the degree in the end that says I accomplished something, and that’s all I really went to school for in the first place. Hopefully my future employers don’t ask for transcripts, and if I return to school, it’ll be for something I’m passionate about.
In the end– and I hate to say this– I didn’t care about Peterson. Authors are the main characters of their autobiographies, and just like with fiction writing, it’s their job to make the reader care about them. Some authors come with built-in appeal (Fredrick Douglass, Anne Frank, Tina Fey), but others have to do work to get the audience interested. While I care deeply about causes related to mental illness (and that’s the main reason I picked up the book), I will most likely forget about the author in a few weeks. In fact, I’d forgotten I read the book until I saw it on my “read” shelf and decided to type up a review.
I was really hoping to be able to recommend this book, but it was so hard to get through that I cannot in good faith do that. For those interested in the science of anxiety disorders, I would certainly suggest you read this book, but be warned that you might have to slog through other, irrelevant sections of the book.
I’m giving the book 3 stars, purely because the information is useful and because the sentences truly are well-crafted. Otherwise, don’t bother reading On the Edge.
I received and advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley, which has no bearing on my opinion. Regardless of my opinion, I am greatful to NetGalley, Andrea Peterson, and Crown Publishing for the opportunity. The links included above are affiliate links, clicking on them and purchasing something through the link helps me keep my blog running. 🙂