The Fiction Fox
Review: Lycantropy and Other Chronic Illnesses - Kristen O'Neal
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Published: Quick Books (by Penguin Random House), May 2022 My Rating: 4/5 stars
“I thought that getting better was a linear thing, but now I remember that chronic means “over and over” at the same time as it means “always” or “forever."
It took me a little longer than normal to write this review, but considering the dust it kicked up among the community regarding its representation, I wanted to do it justice. This will be a review in 3 parts: the good, the bad, and my response to “the ugly” this book was accused of. In short: I strongly disagree with the wave of negativity that was send this books way.
Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses combines humour and heart in the telling of its contemporary story with a slight supernatural twists. We follow Priya, who’s dreams of studying medicine have been put temporarily on hold due to her chronic Lyme’s disease. Doing her best to cope with her newly (at times) uncooperative body, Priya finds support in an online Discord group where she meets virtually with other chronically ill young adults. When one of her online friends suddenly falls off the radar for seemingly health-related reasons, Priya reaches out to offer her help, only to find out that her friends illness isn’t quite what she expected it to be. Spoilers: there’s a clou in the title…
What I loved:
When I read “Teen Wolf meets Emergency Contact” as a blurb, I was worried this would be a little too much teenage angst and light-hearted shenanigans, and a too little depth on the important topics addressed here. I couldn’t have been more wrong: Kristen O’Neal strikes a beautiful balance between a fun contemporary with humour and adventure, whilst also facing the challenges of living with a disability/chronic illness as a young adult head-on. I cannot stress enough how important this is: this is a story where chronically ill teens can see themselves in, in a way where not just their “struggles” are done justice, but also their personalities outside their condition. Growing up a chronically ill teen myself, I’ve been sick and tired of the only “illness-representation” for a YA-audience being the insulting likes of The Fault in Our Stars (romanticising cancer) and Everything Everything(view spoiler).
In Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses we see developed characters, having nuanced conversations and showing actual positive support, friendship and inclusivity toward each other. The way their conversations flow from light-hearted self-deprecating jokes to calling each-other out and dropping insightful bombs like
“I don’t want to define things for you or anything, but you’re allowed to be chronically ill even if someone else seems sicker than you. It’s not a contest.”
It honestly feels realistic, at least to my experience, and completely positive. Through this lighthearted tone, Kristen O’Neal manages to cover an impressive amount of important topics surrounding disability in young-adults, such as coping with protective family, choosing a career with an illness, and the above-mentioned “health-competition” of feeling you aren’t “sick enough”. I haven’t seen many of these topics discussed in YA-fiction before, and I’m excited to see that change.
I was on the fence at first about the choice of framing these conversations in the style of a virtual chat, as it’s often harder for me connect to this writing style. However, I appreciate the choice of portraying these online friendships as a valid support system. Too often, online support and friendship are dismissed as being inferior to real-life connections, whilst especially for people with (rare) disabilities, they can be such a valuable way to connect.
Last but not least importantly, this story was fun. I was along for the ride with Priya& Bridget, their quest for answers and their adventures along the way.
What I didn’t love:
My biggest complaint would be that almost all of the character read a lot younger than their intended ages. Most of that was due to the internet-references and the lingo used amongst them. As someone in the age-bracket of the characters, most of it felt waaay to young for me. In addition to making me cringe a few times (to use the books style: hello r/fellowkids), I also feel like this will date the book quite quickly.
Another small point of critique was the selection of illnesses that the book decided to portray in the secondary characters present in the chat-room. Perhaps I’m nit-picking here, but all of the chronic illnesses portrayed were ones that have already gotten quite a platform, especially online, in recent years (e.g. Endometriosis, Fibromyalgia). Although many of them are still very misunderstood (take Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome for example) the book does little to go into more depth on them, making it feel like a little like “name-dropping” for the sake of representation.
In response to the criticism:
This story’s release has been plagued by some controversy that was stirred up by a few early reactions to the cover and blurb, as well as some negative critique regarding the representation. I want to address the major ones here quickly, as I personally feel the book was done a disservice. Although I deeply appreciate and respect the authors of those first critical reviews for sharing their feelings, I want to offer a counter-opinion as well.
- Not being “own-voices”
The majority of the controversy surrounding this novel came down to the question whether it was “own voices” or not, as it was originally being marketed as such. The issue here being that although the author has a chronic illness, like Priya, she is not of Tamil heritage, like Priya. This raised discussion on both semantics, as well as intersectionality. To address the first: yes, I think this novel deserves to be called “own-voices”. The author wrote a story with disability/chronic illness at its core, whilst having a similar experience/background themselves. Therefore, this is an “own-voices” novel about disability. It’s not an own-voices novel about Tamil culture, but it never claimed to be so. In fact, Priya’s heritage isn’t mentioned in the blurb and played no part in the marketing.
With regards to the second: I think the discussion on intersectionality is an important one. It’s important to recognise that being part of more than one minority-group drastically changes the way one experiences both identities. That being said, how far do we go with this idea? In my opinion, limiting authors to writing only their highly specific situation creates a lot more problems than it solves. Where do we draw the line?
Every reader and every writer exists in their own unique intersection, and no one story will ever get everything right about your unique place in the world. In my opinion, Kristen O’Neal actually does a great job of recognizing this, if you read the novel.
- Offering stereotypical portrayal of Tamil-culture
Honestly, I’m not Tamil so I can’t speak to it. As a sensitivity reader though, I do know the global warning signs to look out for, and didn’t see any. The “overbearing parenting” that some reviewers mentioned is never framed as a cultural thing, rather a result of having a chronically ill child.
- The cover-controversy
This one was frankly a little ridiculous to me. Some people, many of which hadn’t even read the book, rated it one star because the cover was racist. The parallel between the girl and the wolf on the cover being a way to make fun of Tamil people for being hairy(?!). Had they actually read the book, they’d know that the “hairy wolf character” pictured isn’t in fact our POC main character, but her (white) friend.
Throughout this review I use the words “chronic illness” and “disability” almost interchangeable as I don’t have a preference between these “labels” when referring to myself. I do not mean to offend anyone who identifies as one but not the other. Any place either term is used, you can read either, or or both.
Many thanks to Quick Books/Random House for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Find this book on Goodreads.