When Bea meets Beck, she knows instantly that he’s her kind of crazy. Sweet, strong, kinda-messed-up Beck understands her like no one else can. He makes her feel almost normal. He makes her feel like she could fall in love again.
But despite her feelings for Beck, Bea can’t stop thinking about someone else: a guy who is gorgeous and magnetic… and has no idea Bea even exists. But Bea knows a lot about him. She spends a lot of time watching him. She has a journal full of notes. Some might even say she’s obsessed.
Bea tells herself she’s got it all under control. But this isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion. The truth is, she’s breaking down…and she might end up breaking her own heart. – Synopsis from Goodreads
I have spoken a little previously about the intersection of my reading and my experiences with anxiety and depression; there are points in my life where they cross and merge and become tangled together. This is one of those times.
I was hesitant to pick up OCD Love Story for several months. I was tentatively feeling out the books I chose to read – gun-shy after a recent bout of particularly debilitating anxiety – scouting ahead for triggers. I kept OCD Love Story at arm’s length despite being initially drawn to the synopsis. I was wary of content I knew would be difficult to read and even potentially damaging to the mental levees I was still shoring up after a recent breach.
It was another reader’s comment that eventually made me pick it up, a passing remark on a particular aspect of the story that hadn’t worked for them. But it was a catalyst for me. I felt a spark of recognition and a tiny, quiet thought emerged: what if this helps? What if, rather than being a negative experience, reading this novel was actually something quite the opposite?
Reader, it was.
Haydu’s debut is a strong, authentic novel about a teenage girl’s experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is immediate, close – at times, uncomfortably so. Haydu doesn’t allow the reader to look away from Bea’s OCD: it’s intensely in-your-face and all-consuming. It is also compassionate and insightful, tackling the complexity and nuance of OCD with skill. There’s always the possibility for an often misunderstood condition to be further obfuscated by poor writing, but Haydu handles the issue with understanding. This is a compelling and brutally honest portrayal of OCD, and there’s something respectful in Haydu’s commitment to a frank depiction of mental illness.
The craft of the writing is highlighted in Bea’s strong voice. As the novel progresses and the obsessions and compulsions she experiences become more pronounced, Bea’s own growing cognizance of them is reflected in the text. She is not an entirely unreliable narrator, but the limits of her awareness (or perhaps the depth of her denial) are clear at her introduction. From here, Haydu takes the reader on the journey as Bea experiences it: the intensity of her obsessions, the fear of her intrusive thoughts, and rapid spiral of her compulsions. As her need to compulse escalates, and her own consciousness of her behaviour grows, we are drawn into Bea’s powerful internal conflict. There is a lot to unravel here: Bea’s own shame and anxiety, her increasingly unstable and complex relationship with her best friend Lisha, the fragments of past events beginning to emerge. Bea’s parents are a relatively minor presence in the story, but this feels organic to Bea’s voice and the way she views them. While it’s clear that Bea’s parents – particularly her mother – are supportive of her, for much of the novel Bea believes she is successfully concealing the full extent of her OCD from them, and as such she doesn’t often reference them in her narrative. It’s these choices in the writing that make Bea’s voice – and the overall depiction of her illness – feel genuine.
There is, as the title states, a love story here too. And it’s a tender, sweet one between two characters who are complicated and flawed and hurting. Bea’s attraction to and burgeoning relationship with Beck is challenged both internally and externally; both must struggle with how their OCD impacts their ability to connect and support each other, and their own individual experiences with therapy. Beck is more than a love interest – he’s a fully realised character with his own arc – and the romance isn’t used as a cheap plot device or magical remedy for the issues the characters face. The story explores how the relationship is both a challenge and a support for the characters, it weigh the obstacles presented by their respective compulsions against the empathy and understanding they find in each other. It’s realistic and difficult, but both Bea and Beck are sympathetic, engaging characters, which makes it easy to feel invested in their connection.
OCD Love Story unfolds in unexpected ways. There are hints, suggestions at potential directions for the story, but like Bea, we are sometimes caught unaware by what is really going on. Bea’s perspective is narrow, and her interpretation of situations is not always reliable. Haydu uses this to demonstrate the impacts of Bea’s OCD and how her limited understanding of herself develops and changes as the novel progresses. By gradually paring back the layers with which Bea insulates herself mentally and emotionally, Haydu reveals the raw, frenetic heart of the story: Bea understanding that her thoughts and behaviours are irrational, knowing that her actions are destructive, and yet being unable to change or prevent them. The portrayal of this dichotomy is painfully accurate, occasionally frightening, and above all: validating.
We need books like this.
Because there are readers who need to see representation of their reality in fiction. Those who experience mental illness can often feel isolated and unable to articulate what they are going through for fear of (real or imagined) ramifications. It is a powerful thing to see your truth reflected in writing. I know this because it happened to me. I know this because, even after years of my own familiarity with anxiety, this book voiced something that I have never been able to. A piece of my own experience that I have never exposed – out of fear, discomfort, and misunderstanding – suddenly made sense. The sense of relief and safety I experienced as a result was almost overwhelming. I cannot overstate how important it was for me to find this kind of representation.
Of course, I can only speak to my own experience. As always, your mileage may vary etc. But I believe this is a profound book, and an important one. And I’m grateful it was written.
On a related note, Stephanie Kuehn has compiled a list of titles of YA that deals with mental illness, categorised by disorder over at YA Highway.