Published by Spencer Hill Press on October 1st 2014
Genres: Depression & Mental Illness, Emotions & Feelings, Fairytale/Retelling, Performing Arts, Social Issues, Theater, Young Adult
Pages: 336 •Format: Paperback •Source: Purchased
Hot girls get the fairy tales. No one cares about the stepsisters' story. Those girls don't get a sweet little ending; they get a lifetime of longingImogen Keegen has never had a happily ever after—in fact, she doesn't think they are possible. Ever since her mother's death seven years ago, Imogen has pulled herself in and out of therapy.When Imogen's new stepsister, Ella Cinder, moves in down the hall, Imogen begins losing grip on the pieces she's been trying to hold together. The only things that gave her solace--the theatre, cheese fries, and her best friend, Grant--aren't enough to save her from her pain this time.While Imogen is enjoying her moment in the spotlight after the high school musical, the journal pages containing her darkest thoughts get put on display. Now, Imogen must resign herself to be crushed under the ever-increasing weight of her pain, or ?nally accept the starring role in her own life story.And maybe even find herself a happily ever after.
There’s nothing that I love more in books than a good fairytale retelling, so when I came across Damsel Distressed I was so excited to read one that added a twist to the normal conventions. Damsel Distressed is not only a contemporary retelling of Cinderella, but it inverts the typical tropes of the story and has the ugly step-sister archetype as the protagonist, with “Cinderella” as the evil stepsister to invade Imogen’s life. I adored reading such a creative way to retell a tired-a-true fairytale, and I hope it’s indicative of a trend!
For a debut, Damsel Distressed was a strong addition not just to the fairytale retelling genre, but to the contemporary genre as well. Imogen, the protagonist and “step-sister” struggles with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and those themes are explored throughout the book without weighing it down. Imogen is not a character who is solely defined to readers by her struggles, as she deals with issues facing any contemporary protagonist in high school, such as crushes, family life, and friend drama, and she also has a wicked (if self-deprecating) sense of humor. Macke builds a realistic and humorous cast of characters around Imogen, from “Therapist George” to vicious Carmella to charming Grant, and many of the interactions and bonds are formed around the school’s theater program. Imogen is heavily involved as a stage hand, and a large part of the book’s action focuses around the high school’s theater production (which at times I had a hard time being interested in because theater is not something I’ve ever been super involved/interested in, which is my main complaint with this book, but that’s just a personal preference issue!)
That being said, what makes this book stand apart for me is the attention it gives to dealing with mental health issues in teens in such an achingly real way. While the anxiety and depression Imogen deal with may be more severe and clinical than for the average reader, the descriptions of those horrible, all-consuming feelings she gets are applicable to anyone who has dealt with being sad or angry or scared at some point in their life. Macke is able to write a book that not only shows the rawness and pain of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, but makes the reader sympathize with both Imogen AND her friends who get frustrated with how deeply she sinks into her problems. At times even I became frustrated with Imogen’s constant negativity and panic, but then I realized that was the point, because Imogen herself is trapped inside these disorders and struggles every single day:
It is absolutely and unfathomably exhausting to swing back and forth between despair and things-are-okay-look-at-how-awesome-and-normal-I-am.
The swing is the worst part.
Every time I feel a little bit okay, a tiny little pinprick of light flickers inside me and I wonder if it will stay.
But inevitably, the breath of sadness blows it out. Every time. -151
Damsel Distressed also does a bracingly realistic job of depicting cruelty and bullying. Carmella, Imogen’s “perfect” stepsister, is ruthlessly mean. It almost bordered on being over the top, how cruel she was. The thing she said and did were so heinous I felt secondhand emotional whiplash from what Imogen suffered. Macke didn’t hold back on how scathing high school verbal bullying can be, just as she didn’t candy coat Imogen’s mental health struggles. I was concerned for a while that Carmella was going to be a one-dimensional, albeit effective, bully, but toward the end she’s revealed to have more depth to her character hinted at, and I wish that readers had gotten to know “Cinderella” more in depth!
At the end of the day, I love that Macke not only tackled such tough issues in her debut novel but she didn’t define Imogen solely by her journey with anxiety and depression. It’s not an “issue” book, but a book that creatively portrays the mental health struggles that any teenager can face, without assigning any stigmas. At the end of the day, the root of Imogen’s problems are fear, fears that everyone faces: of fitting in, of rejection, of falling in love.
“You know what your problem is, Gen? It’s not your depression or anxiety. It’s fear. You’re blinded by fear. That’s the problem. You’re blind, and you just don’t see. Anything.”
Overall: Damsel Distressed was an extremely creative take on a fairy tale retelling, and tackled mental health issues and bullying in an unabashed way. The darker tone of the book was balanced out with humor in just the right dose, and sketches and journal entries scattered throughout the novel helped the reader connect with Imogen. This was a really neat take on how to approach fairy tale retellings and I hope we see more of it in the future!
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Fairytale Retelling Challenge
- Goodreads Challenge