Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
Published by Flatiron Books, 2015
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
Jenny Lawson writes about mental health in a candid, warm, and conversational way. This works wonders to draw readers in, helping to spark dialogue, and chip away at lingering stigma. The way she normalises the validity of medication and therapy as treatment is particularly praiseworthy. As such, I’m not at all surprised or disappointed to see how popular her work has become. To help people feel seen, and to encourage others to laugh at the absurdities of life, and find joy throughout their struggles is a wonderful thing.
However, the book sets out to be funny first and foremost, and for me, it fell largely flat on that front. The humour (the recounting of dialogue, in particular) was so obviously exaggerated that I found it all a bit forced and cringey. There were certainly some mildly amusing moments, but whilst my sense of humour favours a faster pace (think cutting sarcasm, zingy word play, and punchy one-liners), Lawson’s favours bizarre analogies and nonsensical tangents that are latched onto and stretched beyond their limits. In short, I like humour that feels effortless, but I could always see how hard Lawson was working to prove her quirkiness. This is obviously personal preference and entirely subjective, but if you have to tell us when you’ve made a joke (which Lawson does a lot), repeat the same joke (which she does a lot), or admit that a joke you’ve made isn’t even funny (which she also does a lot), I would suggest that said jokes aren’t really working.
I feel icky about this next part, but it would be remiss of me not to flag it up given how much it bothered me. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that someone’s personal relationship is no one else’s business. Also, let’s keep in mind that we’re only hearing one side of things, and that certain anecdotes have clearly been exaggerated for comedic effect. That said, the way Lawson’s partner treated her often made me uncomfortable. Though her behaviour is intentionally juvenile and undoubtedly infuriating at times, even when she’s in the grips of a genuine, full-blown anxiety attack, he’s either dismissive and embarrassed of her, or else he shouts at her in a blunt and condescending manner; repeatedly calling her ‘crazy’ and telling her to shut up. Obviously, her life is hers to do with what she wants, and if a ‘tough love’ dynamic works for them, that’s totally fine. I just don’t want people with mental health problems to read this book and think that’s how they should always expect to be treated; as though it’s what they deserve. Just know that what works for everyone is different, and if what you need is a gentler approach of patience, understanding, and compassion, you are more than entitled to precisely that.
There’s also a chapter which sees Lawson visit Australia, in which she comes across as culturally ignorant and insensitive (confusing the country with New Zealand; asking if there were rhinos near the place they were staying; comparing koalas to people with dwarfism; and referring to Uluru as ‘a big rock’). We all live and learn, but… really?
I found the structure somewhat erratic, too. It’s not linear or comprehensive enough to be a memoir, nor is it thematically focussed enough to be an effective essay collection on mental health. There are many, many chapters about entirely extraneous things (like how she finds people in airports annoying; draft tweets she jotted down late at night; foods she doesn’t like; weird taxidermy; or the time she had her gallbladder removed; to name just a few). These add nothing to the mental health discussion, nor are they insightful or funny enough for their place to really feel justified. Granted, this informality may have been deliberate, to emphasise the conversational tone, and if you enjoy Lawson’s voice, you’ll likely get along fine with these sections. But, for me, the book would have been stronger had it been constructed with a clearer sense of direction.
I’m aware that, the more I got into this review, the more negative it became. So, let me finish by making it clear that I still think this book is worthwhile. When Lawson ditches the meandering tangents in favour of an incisive look at the realities of life with anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders, it’s honest, relatable, and valuable. Indeed, the book has a lot of heart, and is incredibly well intentioned. That Lawson’s style doesn’t gel with me is a shame, but it’s no reflection of the book’s overall impact. Clearly it has provided comfort and relief to many, and for that I’m glad.
If you fancy giving Furiously Happy a go, you can find a copy by clicking here.