Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella is one of this year’s new releases. The novel takes the reader to a journey of re-discovery. It allows us to see the world in Audrey’s eyes, while at the same time sought her out, the real her beyond the timid and disengaged narrative voice.
Audrey and Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense fear in one or more social situations causing considerable distress and impaired ability to function in at least some parts of daily life. These fears can be triggered by perceived or actual scrutiny from others. (Wikipedia)
I can eat supper with my family. I can go to see Dr. Sarah in my safe little bubble of car-waiting-room-Dr.-Sarah’s-room-car-home. All the people in my therapy groups in St. John’s – they’re comfort people too. Because they’re not a threat. (OK, OK, I know they aren’t really a threat. But try telling my stupid brain that.)” – p. 37
Audrey, our protagonist, is diagnosed with SAD. We aren’t told exactly how it happened, only that it was triggered by something that happened in school, and ever since then she has stayed home and found comfort in her dark den. We get a feel, as readers, that Audrey doesn’t want to expound on her illness. As we discuss this between the two of us,
[FATS]: I think part of the reason why Audrey doesn’t talk much about her social anxiety is because people might think she’s “weird.”
[IPHIGENE]: At the onset, I felt there was a level of shame or embarrassment in discussing her illness. I’ve come to realize that the weight of being mentally ill is two-prong: on your own person, and on the people who are directly affected. There’s a level of guilt there. I say this both as a psychologist and someone who has to deal with her own mental illness. At the same time, I felt that opening up about your darkest secret makes you vulnerable and open, something I suppose people with social anxiety have difficulty with. Audrey showed difficulty with eye contact, conversation, all of these things that connect people. If you have difficulty connecting, wouldn’t talking about your illness be tough?
It can’t be helped that, in a first person point of view and with a narrator that withholds information, the reader would wonder if Audrey is a trustworthy narrator. Should we believe her? In our discussion, we realize that this was not an issue of trusting the voice, rather a matter of experiencing her life.
“OK, so the backstory. You’ll want to know that, I suppose… Except, Jeez. I can’t go into it all again. Sorry, I just can’t. I’ve sat enough rooms with teachers, doctors, regurgitating the same story, using the same words, till it starts to feel like something that happened to someone else.” – p. 36
[FATS]: I think Sophie Kinsella did an excellent job telling the story in Audrey’s point of view. Through Audrey’s perspective, readers are able to see what’s going on with someone who is suffering from social anxiety disorder. Do I trust her? I do. There were instances in the book where Audrey would say one thing to another character but shifts into “narrator mode” and points out what she’s actually thinking or feeling. The story definitely wouldn’t be the same if it were told in someone else’s perspective. Readers would not gain as much insight about what Audrey is going through if the story was told in, say, Frank’s perspective.
[IPHIGENE]: I felt that the first person POV allowed the readers to experience, even at the superficial level, how it is to have social anxiety disorder. We see her struggle and understand that this isn’t a simple case of introversion or being over dramatic. In some ways, we get to feel that it is real and that while her own logic understands how illogical her fear is, she can’t simply talk herself out of it. In a way, the reader is allowed to journey with Audrey – to feel the changes in her. It’s an unfolding that ties well with the title. We don’t see much of Audrey. As she slowly comes out, the reader also hears more of her. We see her interact more. Her voice becomes bigger than when it began and we get to experience that more intimately with the chosen POV. I do trust her voice. If it were another POV we would see it in terms of how people react to it, as oppose to gaining understanding and empathy towards people with this concern.
Audrey and the Family
For the most part of the story, we see Audrey’s family as she sees them. We catch a glimpse of her mother, her father, and her brothers, Frank and Felix, through Audrey’s perception. Her understanding of them is our understanding of them. At the beginning of the story she paints this rather lively crowd:
“OMG, Mum’s gone insane. Not normal Mum-insane. Serious Insane. Normal Mum-Insane: Mum says, “Let’s all do this great gluten free diet I read about in the daily mail!” Mum buys three loaves of gluten-free bread. It’s so disgusting our mouths curl up. The family goes on strike…that’s normal mum-insane. But this is serious insane. She’s standing at her bedroom window…and she’s holding my brother Frank’s computer. It’s balanced precariously on the window ledge.” – p. 1
This would then set the tone for the family dynamics as Audrey perceives it. While we may think of her family as intense, in further discussion, we find such is not the case.
[FATS]: At first glance, Audrey’s family appears strange. However, as the story progresses, you’ll realize that her family has typical family dynamics. You see a parent and child argue, a mother worrying so much about her daughter, a father who likes cars, siblings who argue with each other, and a teenage son being grounded, among other things.
[IPHIGENE]: As Fats pointed out, Audrey’s family is like most families. While the mom seemed overbearing and the dynamics crazy, in deeper understanding, one sees that like all families dealing with issues, they all have to figure out what to do with it. Audrey’s SAD is something new to them. They deal with it in their own unique ways. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the way they approach Audrey and the way they deal with her issue. What is clear is that they are protective but at the same time frustrated. When there’s a white elephant in the room, whether it’s mental illness or not, all families try to be careful, walk around it, and displace whatever it is they feel on something else.
I look at the photo again, at Mum’s happy, shiny photo face – and then down at her tired, asleep, real-life face on the bed. It hadn’t occurred to me that Mum had stopped working completely. But ever since I’ve been at home, I realize, she hasn’t gone to her office once.
There’s also a level of distance between Audrey and her family, as she is observer and they the participate in the family dynamic or drama. And as she re-engages back to life, she discovers her role back into it, as well as the re-discover who her family is.
Audrey, Linus & Recovery
While his name evoked Peanuts in our minds, we can’t help but love Linus. I think we are one with Audrey’s family when they say:
“Linus, I’m very sorry I took my worries and fears out on you. I got completely the wrong end of the stick. I know how good you’ve been for Audrey and I can only apologize… Linus, we are very fond of you. And I should not have shouted at you.” – p. 271
Linus made Audrey’s recovery possible. He did what probably her family couldn’t do: challenge her outside her comfort zone. Linus, actively, transformed himself to become part of Audrey’s comfort people.
“Hi.” Linus’s voice takes me by surprise, and I jump round in shock. Like, I literally jump. I have pretty sharpened reflexes. Oversensitive. Like the rest of me.
[FATS]: I believe that Audrey’s interaction with Linus is a catalyst for her recovery. Linus is Frank’s friend, which makes him someone coming from outside of the family. He’s an outsider looking in. Unlike Audrey’s family, Linus sees Audrey in a different light, and her illness is something new to him, something he’s not used to dealing with every day. I like the way Linus treats Audrey and her illness in the gentlest ways imaginable. He does not force Audrey to come out but lets her do it in her own pace. An outsider like Linus is able to deal with Audrey’s illness better because he doesn’t worry as much as her family does. There are no serious emotional attachments involved, and they are able to work around Audrey’s illness better this way.
[IPHIGENE]: Linus, to me, was like a therapist. He was casual, non-judgmental, and patient in building a trust relationship between Audrey and him. While he understood Audrey’s illness, he didn’t coddle her. Linus didn’t walk around egg shells the way other people did around Audrey. He challenged Audrey, pushing through her walls slowly while building a relationship of trust. He did this in stages, starting with the least threatening of interactions: exchanging notes and gradually moved from that. He started with small things from exchanging notes through Felix, coining terms of endearment that only the two of them understood (Rhubarb and Orange Slice), small chats, shoe contact, texting, Starbucks date, kiss on paper, thumb contact, jeans contact, arm-round-shoulders contact, hair-to-hair contact, cheek-to-cheek contact, mouth contact, and eventually to this fun challenges involving talking to strangers. If he hadn’t tried to push, Audrey could still be where she was when he met her. In my field of work, psychology, the best way to help people with psychological issues is to empower them and Linus did that.
Socialization and Technology
Two things played prominently in the story: the “ills’ of technology and problems of socialization. This is juxtaposed in the story lines of Audrey and Linus. We see Audrey unable not only to socialize with people but deal with mobile phones. Then we see Frank and his dedication to LOC, an online game and their mother’s desire to make him healthy and drive him away from his ‘addiction.’ As we discussed these two aspects, we are guided by the role of Social Media in creating Social Anxiety.
[IPHIGENE]: Early into my graduate studies, I was asked to do a report of social network and its impact on development. I came across an article (I don’t remember the title or the author) that said that, back in the day, when a child was bullied in school, they came home and they were safe. The moment they shut the door, they were no longer in school and they were far away from the bully. With the rise of social media, the bullying continues, the popularity contest continues, hence the pressure continues. Even within Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the social hierarchies exist and the school hallway infiltrates the walls of what was once a safe-zone. While it may not directly lead to increased social anxiety, it does make us more vulnerable to it.
[FATS]: I think social media and online networks bring out insecurities from some people, while others feel overwhelmed by online interaction.
However, although social network can bring insecurities, it isn’t necessarily evil. Technology isn’t necessarily evil. Audrey’s Mum fears that gaming to Frank would lead him to be anti-social and therefore unhealthy, while she forces Frank to go out there, she does nothing to bring Audrey out. This begs as to discuss, which is more ‘anti-social,’
[FATS]: I think it depends on how you define “anti-social” behavior. Even so, I still think that Audrey’s shielded world is more anti-social than Frank’s online world. Being a gamer myself, I understand Frank’s game “addiction.” I, too, have spent at least 10 hours playing video games online and played video games during the wee hours of the morning. People who don’t play video games or are not into it at all are sometimes quick to judge gamers by labeling them as “anti-social.” I’ve played MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) and those games allow you to interact with other players from around the world. You talk in chat, get recruited in a guild, party up for dungeons and raids, and even team up to compete with other players in arenas. Audrey, on the other hand, just wants to hide from the world. She refuses to be seen, to see, or to talk to people. She keeps her room dimmed and wears her dark sunglasses at home! Also, some people (myself included) are described as anti-social when, in reality, they’re just “selectively social.”
[IPHIGENE]: Socialization is a two-way process. There is real interaction between two people and I feel that while Frank and his obsession over computer games can easily be called out as anti-social, it isn’t. A lot of gamers have vents and form guilds or teams. I know quite a few people who have developed friendships and relationships while playing games. Audrey, however, ran away from socialization, from building relationships and interacting with people. Even with her family, her interactions are limited. There is no engagement, no connection being formed. The shielded world isn’t necessarily anti-social, but it does prevent socialization.
There is so much that can be said about the novel. Kinsella’s novel allows its readers to delve into mental illness and bullying and the impact of our actions to each other. We found that the novel showed the cascading impact of our actions. In a story about withdrawing from social interaction, what we find is the lesson on our individual impact to the greater fabric of human interaction. A bullying incident affects a girl, that girl affects her family members and their friendships, while at the same time, a level-headed boy’s spirit can affect a girl, and the change in that girl can affect her family members.
We found that this book was worth reading.
[FATS]: I had so much fun reading Finding Audrey that I don’t even know where to begin. I like that it’s a book about social anxiety disorder, something that doesn’t come too often. I like the characters in the book, even Audrey’s Daily-Mail-obsessed mother. I love Frank. I love the layout of the story. It reminds me aof Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. Finding Audrey is “laid back” and uproariously funny. Everyone should read it.
[IPHIGENE]: This book was unexpectedly funny. Frank made this book for me, but more than that, I felt the book was pregnant with stuff. There was more in between the lines that engaged me as a reader. Questions like? Why was Audrey’s mom so fixated with Frank and the computer? Why did the dad feel so disengage? What happened to Audrey? How does Frank feel? It was evident to me that people were walking on egg shells around Audrey, even Audrey points out the half-way sentences. Its those in betweens—the unsaid that made me want to read more. I also liked the video project that was interspersed throughout the book. I found it as a wonderful way by which we get to experience how it for Audrey, to see the world as she did behind the lenses.
In those lenses, Audrey found herself and her life.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about everything. And I guess Mum was right about the jagged graphs thing. We’re all on one. Even Frank. Even Mum. Even Felix. I think that what I’ve realized is, life is all about climbing up, slipping down, and picking yourself up again. And it doesn’t matter if you slip down. As long as you’re kind of heading more or less upwards. That’s all you can hope for. More or less upwards.” – p. 284
At the end of it all, the novel allow the reader to participate in a journey of self re-discovery and re-engagement to life and all its ups and downs.