Review: All's Well by Mona Awad

My Quick Take: I was enthralled by this book and captivated by its themes. This is my first five star read of the year.

Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random Canada (2021)

“We all fall, Ms. Fitch. We fall and we rise again. Bones and tissue heal. But sometimes we want to hold on to the pain. Sometimes we have our reasons for not being able to let go.”
When a surgeon says this to main character Miranda, who lives with debilitating chronic pain, it might be construed as compassionate. It most emphatically is not. It is an expression of power and control in Mona Awad’s 2021 release All’s Well, a novel that explores the nuances of female pain: who gets to comment on it, who gets to diagnose it, who gets to treat it, who gets to believe it? The pain in this story is most obviously physical pain, but I also see psychic pain on display in the book. There is the pain of wanting things to be exactly as one desires; the pain of accepting the unwanted, like ageing; and the pain of not being able to perform to the standards that we feel society puts on us.

Miranda was a celebrated stage actress with a loving husband and a bright future, and then she fell off the stage. One injury turned into many, and when we meet her at the beginning of the book she is much diminished: teaching students she largely loathes at a community college, and dreading directing the school’s annual Shakespeare production. She is almost immobilized by her pain, feels hopeless, and is so, so angry.

Awad has crafted a most multi-layered, complex and imaginative tale. I read this as a part of my feminist-themed book club, and there were absolutely varied opinions on this book, with many loving it, and some really not. But what we all decided on was that the 90 minute discussion this book prompted was rich, interesting and valuable. I was on the side of loving the book. I really liked the discussion of female pain; the inclusion of Shakespeare’s plays running through the narrative; and the magical realism and surrealism.

I read a non-fiction book called Unwell Women last year, a detailed discussion of female pain over the centuries and society’s response to it. I was reminded of the disbelief and blame that ran through that history while reading this book. In the first section, Miranda can hardly move, passive in the face of her pain and almost religiously dependent on her therapists and doctors. She’s angry and unpleasant, and people are frustrated with her. I felt that way towards her as I read too. Get over it already, I thought. You can do better! That Awad could write the novel such that I was angry at Miranda and her pain was clever: it made me complicit in the view of her pain.

And here’s where the theatre comes in. Miranda is an actor, and we get the sense that she must perform her pain. She’s the victim, she’s the hag, she’s the angry woman who demands. She’s difficult. When she’s called into a meeting with the Dean and his powerful male cronies:
“I gaze at the flimsy plastic chair the dean is pointing to, which may as well be an iron maiden. If I sit in that ridiculous chair, I’ll pay for it dearly. I may not be able to get back up. But I imagine asking these men if I can remain standing. I picture myself standing, casting my crooked shadow over them. All of them gazing up at my body, lump of foul deformity. They’d think it was some dramatic strategy. The drama teacher’s histrionics. My inherent need to make theatre wherever I go.”
There’s an awful double bind here. For a woman in pain, society may demand that she submit to pain; to be a willing, quiet victim, forever suffering. A good patient. Her pain may be disbelieved. Rather than the result of nerve damage, her surgeon is sure, “My pain was my dead mother, my divorce, my failed aspirations for the stage.” If she demands to be heard or starts to advocate for herself she may be punished and infantilized. On the other hand, when Miranda is freed of pain under enchantment (or so is my reading of the novel), she is compelled to perform wellness to a maniacal degree. That is also a form of performance, and one that could drive her off the edge. Society demands the perfection of wellness in this case. In either scenario, Miranda loses her autonomy.
“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn't know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That could just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if need be.”
Is there a way out? I don’t want to give away the ending completely, but Awad managed to find a middle ground after an amazing, surreal stage sequence near the end of the book that had me feeling totally absorbed and breathless. The writing truly took me away, and Miranda’s reclamation of her power was satisfying.

That said, with nine of us in the room for the book club, there was so much interpretation of the meaning, theme and ultimate conclusions of the book that we didn’t reach any true consensus. There are so many ways you can read this book: Is it real? Is it fantasy? Is it magical? What is happening here? Is it an allegory for each of us wrestling with our life choices? Interestingly, in the end, we all kind of decided that it didn’t matter. That was a part of the fun: you can run with it however you want, and take from it whatever makes sense and resonates with you.

And then there were the tidbits that just kept coming. This book offered wonderful puzzles for my brain to pick on, so that I had to occasionally pause, ponder, and then pick up my pen and jot down my thoughts. Here are just a few:
  • You can spend time pondering the significance of Awad’s choice of the name Miranda, ostensibly plucked from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Manipulative wizard Prospero’s teenage daughter Mirnada is seen in a classic interpretation of the play as the perfection of womanhood: innocent, beautiful and compassionate. Contrast this with Lady Macbeth, the role Miranda was performing when she was originally injured.
  • Miranda’s therapists are all male, and named Matt, Mark, Luke and John. Matt is the most pernicious of the group, gaslighting Miranda and never hearing her truth. They preach the Gospel of wellness, but reward her pain with their attention while never allowing her a voice.
  • The image of “three” runs through the novel in different ways, and the three witches from Macbeth here are dapper men: theatre goers who just want “a good show,” only ever satisfied with a black or white dichotomy, never satisfied with the middling truth. Boring! In effect, they are all of us: the manipulators, the judgers and the mindless throng looking for entertainment. Are they the personification of her pain? Another fascinating possibility for my brain to untangle.
All’s Well was an intelligent, thoughtful and provocative piece of writing that didn’t fail to challenge me at every turn. I found the reading experience to be engaging both on an emotional and intellectual level. There were passages that enthralled me, transporting me into the story and absorbing my attention completely. There was a depth to her exploration of the theme of female roles and performative womanhood that satisfied, and will keep me pondering this novel for some time to come.