★★★★★I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I began reading this book, but as soon as I started, I was completely drawn into Norah’s small secluded world and the way she tells her story as a suffering agoraphobic. This is a gorgeously written book about mental illness, and I found reading the story through Norah’s perspective and seeing the world through her eyes so compelling. For me, this definitely stands out as one of the best YA novels centering around mental illness that I’ve read to date.
In YA literature, mental illness is a subject that is very often written about, from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Wintergirls to Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But I find that the narratives that are commonly told again and again are ones about depression and self-harm, with the occasional story focusing on anxiety or eating disorders. What initially drew me to Under Rose-Tainted Skies is that it’s a perspective that isn’t shared as often, both in literature and in talking about mental health in general. I was really intrigued at the mention of a protagonist with agoraphobia, and wanted to know more about it. And when I began reading, it did feel like a brand new story, one that I didn’t know until now I needed to read. I found it so interesting to be in the same headspace as Nora as she lived through her days, the way she centered her whole life so that she didn't have to leave her house, which included ordering in groceries from a delivery service to having her therapist appointments take place there, too. As someone who suffers from social anxiety, I also found myself sympathizing with and relating to Norah in some moments. While I realize that these two forms of anxiety aren't the same, there were definitely a few overlaps, like not wanting to deal with the public, feeling like you're living life from indoors, and overanalyzing to the point of exhaustion. I felt I could relate in the moments when Norah would scroll through her Metro feed to see what her peers were doing, and when she would peer out the window at what was going on outside, while not wanting to be seen. But with this, I also learned so much more about agoraphobia and OCD. In fact, the vast majority of this novel takes place in Norah's house, and I find that in itself really unique, the way an entire story can take place in one setting yet still have so much going on within this setting to keep the reader engaged.
It's interesting how Norah stands just on the border of the outside world, how there are so many opportunities when she could potentially interact with it--from when she struggles to fetch the bag of groceries that are on the porch to the times when she opens the door to speak to Luke--but she just can't step over that threshold. There's definitely an element that's similar to the movie Rear Window, too, how Norah frequently observes the outside world from her window, living vicariously through these brief moments. And this is what really captivated me about Norah's story: how she so carefully created this world for herself and her mother that she believes is so secure, but then meets someone, her neighbor Luke, who challenges all of that. Norah convinces herself that Luke could never be interested in someone like her, that they couldn't possibly have a relationship where she held him back in any way with her agoraphobia.
But Luke is different, and from the very start he goes out of his way to show Norah how much he cares about her in ways that still preserves this world she's created. It starts with him leaving notes under the door for her to find. They then begin talking face to face at the door. Later, he leaves his own party to go next door and hang out with her, letting her know that he hadn't forgotten about her. Even when Luke witnesses her having a panic attack and is made aware of her illness, he doesn't mock her or consider her weird. He reassures her that it's okay to be different and continues to respect her boundaries. He wants her to get better but he doesn't push her or belittle her for her lack of progress. Throughout the novel, Luke is wholeheartedly gentle, considerate, and understanding, and it's so sweet how these two interact and form a relationship in their own way. And I think that's ultimately what this book is about: finding someone in life who understands your challenges and still cares for you unconditionally, who is optimistic but still there for you in the present, and who makes you strong enough to face your fears.
There's another piece of this love story, though, that makes Under Rose-Tainted Skies especially unique. Unlike many books about mental illness where the girl falls in love with the guy and then realizes that she just needed him all along and is magically "cured" of her illness, Nora and Luke's story doesn't follow this same trope. Not in the slightest. Because even as Nora and Luke's relationship develops, this doesn't mean that Nora no longer has agoraphobia. No matter how kind and supportive Luke is to her, it still doesn't erase the fact that she continues to struggle with her illness and have her ups and downs. This is so important because it really shows the complexity of mental illness and how it can't be diminished in the face of a romantic relationship. In this way, Luke and Nora's relationship is that much more true to real life as Luke sees Nora's vulnerabilities and slowly understands that nothing he can do can truly "fix" her illness, but he continues to be supportive and love her wholely as she works through her agoraphobia.
Beyond the story itself, what I especially appreciated about Under Rose-Tainted Skies is that it’s an #ownvoice novel, as Louise Gornall herself has struggled with agoraphobia. In her author’s note, Gornall reveals that this novel came out of a rant that she had scribbled down during a difficult time in her life, one that she had no intention of sharing. But of course, it eventually grew to become this novel, and while Gornall says that her and Norah’s stories are not exactly the same, the way their minds work are. I truly admire Louise Gornall for shaping her own experiences into Norah’s story while also not romanticizing Norah’s mental illness in any way, something that many non-#ownvoices writers who write about mental illness can often be guilty of. Norah’s experiences are raw, eye-opening, and incredibly honest, and it’s refreshing to hear that Norah’s story is written from a very real place out of Gornall’s own struggles. So I commend Gornall for this, and for having the bravery to write this story that is both hers and Norah’s.