The Definition of Us by Sarah Harris ARC Review

Release date – 12th July 2018

Rating – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is without a doubt one of the best (if not THE best) YA book about mental health that I’ve read; Sarah Harris takes such a delicate subject, weaves humour and love and friendship, and creates such a beautiful book. Do you ever just finish a book and want to smush it to your chest because it made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

That’s what happened when I finished The Definition of Us.

What It’s About

Florence, Jasper, Wilf and Andrew all have their issues. Florence struggles with her depression, while Jasper is happy nearly all the time – only, not at mealtimes. Andrew’s ASD means he operates on plans and known entities, while Wilf has anger issues, ADHD, and a tongue in cheek attitude.

They do have two things in common, though; they’re all patients at Manor Lane Diagnostic & Therapy Centre, and they all rely on their psychotherapist, Howard Green. But when Howard goes missing, when the staff at Manor Lane give no clues as to where he’s gone, the group take matters into their own hands, travelling the country to find Howard and make sure he’s okay.

When I first read the synopsis, I was intrigued but a bit skeptical, as I thought the characters were in an inpatient ward, and I was wondering how they broke out.

(I spent about a year and a half trying to break myself out of hospital, so I was a bit awestruck by this idea if I’m being honest.)

But Manor Lane isn’t an inpatient ward; it was more of a day patient program, which is just like an inpatient ward only without the overnight stays.

The Characters & Their Illnesses

As someone that suffers from depression and anorexia, it’s easy to lump myself in with my illnesses and not separate the two. Sarah Harris does an absolutely fabulous job of creating a character with depression, not just a depressed character. Florence has depression, but she isn’t her depression; she’s a lover of words, of writing; she’s sweet and thoughtful, but still stands up for things.

The same goes for every character in this book; they have their illnesses, but they also have different qualities.

Jasper is, as he says, 90% happy most of the time, but that 10% does sometimes kick in. He does have an eating disorder, but I really appreciate the fact that Sarah didn’t just do the easy ‘teenage girl with anorexia and a mortal fear of being fat’ thing. Instead, she raised the fact that boys and men can and do suffer from eating disorders. She raised that sufferers aren’t all afraid of every single unhealthy food known to man (Jasper loves chocolate, but struggles to eat other things. Eating disorder sufferers don’t just live off salad).

Andrew’s ASD means that he lives on a schedule, getting anxious when things don’t go according to plan. He’s wickedly smart, memorising random facts. He doesn’t understand many social cues, but he tries. He’s unflinchingly honest, and as cute as a button, but he strives to be liked by his peers. He spends so much time trying to get them to like him, trying to join them in their world, but nobody ever joins him in his. He’ll break your heart.

Wilf has ADHD and a quick temper. He hides behind false bravado, talking big about girls and alcohol and other ‘manly’ things. But underneath, he’s scared; scared of ending up alone like his dad, scared of being stuck in a job he doesn’t want, scared of being caught up in his brother’s drug dealing.

Even though all of the characters have some illness or other, it’s never made a big deal of; we find out about their problems as we go, instead of having the Big Diagnosis Reveal’ at the beginning of the book. We learn more about their illnesses and their behaviours as we go.

Being ‘Normal’ & Being in Hospital

In hospital, normalised behaviour is shoved down your throat. Dressing gowns during the day? Taking longer than 30 minutes to eat a meal? Having beans at the side of the plate instead of on the toast? No, no, and no. You aren’t allowed to do that because it just isn’t normal behaviour. Never mind the fact that some people live for lazy days in the house, that some people are slow eaters, and that some people have different eating habits, it’s just not normal.

Everyone has different ideas of what being ‘normal’ means, and Sarah explores that perfectly.

Sarah also captured being in hospital perfectly. People always think that hospitals – psychiatric ones in particular – must be awful, and it’s sort of right, but it’s also wrong. I hated being away from my family, but the support from both the staff and the other patients were incredible. I think about them every single day, because they shaped who I am now.

It was incredibly refreshing to have mentally ill characters who actually wanted to get better. Sarah didn’t have her characters demonise hospitals and therapy, instead emphasising how much the therapy helped her characters, and also how nerve wracking it is to actually leave hospital or care.

The Verdict

Honestly, I could gush about this book for a long while, but I’m gonna finish this here.

I would highly, HIGHLY recommend this book; not only does it deal with important subjects, it’s also an incredibly sweet and funny book. Every now and then I come across a book that makes me feel hopeful about life, and this is one of those books.

*Thank you so, so much to Sophia Walker from Little, Brown Book Group for sending me an arc*

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