Nice to Have a Friend

Mental health seems to be an increasingly common theme in literature. Amen. In fact, books are part of the reason why I started analyzing my own mental health and recognizing that I needed to take better care of it. I recently opened up about starting therapy back in May, and I really believe that reading about so many book characters’ experiences with therapy and about their struggles influenced me to seek help too.

Sometimes books about mental health struggles can intensify your own though. It’s not that they’re bad, but when you’re feeling sad, reading about someone else’s sadness — though making you realize you’re not alone — makes you spiral. That’s what happened recently when I read the profound novel, A Little Life. While it was both beautiful and tragic, the latter quality seemed to take over my own feelings.

So was I ready to pick up another novel dedicated to the same topic (not to mention just weeks before the election during a pandemic)? Fortunately, The Existence of Amy didn’t give me those negative thoughts and feelings. Rather, I felt a kinship with the main character — even if her experiences were completely different than my own — and I felt a rush of emotion for those closest to me who have helped me along the way. I didn’t finish this book feeling anxious and sad; I left it feeling hopeful and grateful.

On the surface, Amy is a normal woman. She works a normal job, has normal friends, and lives in a normal apartment. But those who know her well know a different side of her. They know that she can be extremely flaky and blow people off with very poor excuses. They may not be able to pinpoint what makes her different, but they suspect something deeper in the works. Some have stopped giving Amy chances, while others are sympathetic and try to help.

Behind this flaky yet seemingly normal façade Amy has resurrected lives a woman with intense anxiety and emotional trauma. We don’t know until the very end what her exact problems are, but we can certainly feel them as we read this book. They debilitate Amy from living the life she knows she can live and the life that she once had. It’ll take friends and health care to keep her negative thoughts and anxiety at bay and to have a more meaningful existence, which everyone deserves.

The Existence of Amy is a relatively short book, and sometimes having so few pages can leave a book feeling rushed and/or like it’s missing key information. Somehow author Lana Grace Riva avoided that in her second book. You still fly through it, but you never feel like it lacks context, details, plot, or anything else.

On the contrary, you feel the emotion and tension in such a few number of pages. There’s one scene in particular where Amy is forced to fly from her home in the U.K. to Australia for work. After a security issue prompts intense anxiety, Amy’s left standing in a crowded terminal with her eyes darting around and her heart beating faster and faster. Her brain is working overtime trying to rationalize decisions that, as an outsider, seem very illogical. As the reader, you can feel everything Amy is going through, which builds a connection between you as the reader and the main character.

“We all struggle, even the sky, but beauty never leaves us if we’re open to noticing it … I believe this to be true, yet I still struggle with reminding myself of it.”

The Existence of Amy

You don’t speed through this book because it’s less than 300 pages. You do so because you understand the main character and because the pacing is spot-on. Riva’s pacing in this novel perfectly captures Amy’s thoughts, feelings, and, well, existence.

Damn. That’s meta.

In the beginning of this post, I alluded to the fact that this is the book dedicated to that friend who realized you needed help before you knew it yourself. The person who picked you up at the lowest of your lows. The person who didn’t judge or act like they knew better but who supported and assisted you in getting the help you needed.

That’s another reason why I enjoyed this book so much. For a hot minute there, I expected a love story to emerge in this novel and for this individual to be Amy’s saving grace. That would have actually irritated me. (The whole man-saving-woman trope is so 1990s.) I appreciated that Riva dug deeper to find a meaningful relationship outside of a sexual one.

Yes, sometimes a love interest can save the main character. But friendships are equally important. I love my partner, and I wouldn’t have taken the step to go therapy without him, nor would I be anywhere close to where I am today without him. However, I have so many friends who also deserve credit for making me a better person and for making me love myself more. Not every story has to be a love story; sometimes it can be that of two friends.

This includes a friendship between a man and a woman too, which is one of the main relationships in this novel. As someone who often gets along better with men than women and who enjoys “being one of the guys,” I liked that Riva explored this type of relationship. And she did so without perpetuating the stereotype that men and women can’t be friends without there being chemistry or sexual tension.

The friendships in this novel really do move this book from being a depressing read about mental health (that’s not a criticism; some are legit depressing) to an enjoyable one that flows easily and makes you smile. You can’t help but feel hopeful for all the suffering in the world after you read The Existence of Amy because you know truly great people are out there to move it along.

This novel follows the same vein as fellow U.K. novels Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and How Not to Die Alone, both of which expertly explored female/male friendships and mental health (!!!). If you enjoyed those books just like I did, you are certainly in for a treat. And if not? Please give The Existence of Amy a read anyway. Amy — and everyone like her — deserves it.

*Full disclosure: Lana Grace Riva reached out to me over the summer and sent me a copy of her book in exchange for a review, though this in no way affected BLL’s thoughts and feelings toward the book.*

3 thoughts on “Nice to Have a Friend

  1. Pingback: Thankful | Big Little Literature

  2. Pingback: A Broken Hallelujah | Big Little Literature

  3. Pingback: Secret Moments in a Crowded Room | Big Little Literature

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