Date Read: February 15th 2017
Publisher: Blurb Books
Winner of the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.
On the edge of the Chicago medical district, the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth looks like a castle in a snow globe. Janina has been there since she was ten years old, and now she’s fourteen. She feels so safe inside its walls that she’s afraid to leave.
Devante’s parents bring him there after a tragedy leaves him depressed and suicidal. Even though he’s in a different place, he can’t escape the memories that come flooding back when he least expects them.
Dr. Gail Thomas comes to work there after quitting her medical residency. Frustrated and on the verge of giving up on her dreams, she sees becoming a counselor as her last chance to put her skills to the test.
When he founded the school, Dr. Lutkin designed its unique environment to be a place that would change the students’ lives. He works hard as the keeper of other people’s secrets, though he never shares any of his own.
But everything changes late in the winter of 1994 when these four characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. None of them will ever be the same.
Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)
A Bitter Pill To Swallow is a young adult novel set in 1994 Chicago that closely follows three characters as they battle with various stresses life brought them. Devante is a young black high school student, suffering from intense PTSD; Janina is a quirky young black high school student, who has been diagnosed with some features of schizotypal personality disorder; Dr. Gail Thomas is a determined young black women who is finally a medical resident after taking a break from her residency program, due to family issues. All three characters have their own bitter pills to swallow and eventually meet at a therapeutic boarding school- The Harrison School, run by a kind and gentle psychiatrist, Dr. Lutkin.
Each chapter alternates between the three characters’ or Dr. Lutkin’s point of view; no, it’s not confusing – Gholar does a great job at allowing the story to flow quite nicely. The characters have their own storylines, which eventually merge towards the end, making this an absorbing, suspenseful read. Dr. Gail’s chapters were bold and readers see black girl magic at work in her character. In my opinion, she’s the heroine of this novel – you’ll have to get your copy to find out why!
The Harrison School is not your average therapeutic boarding school. It is an ideal environment for anyone – not just students who battle with mental illness. Tiffany Gholar’s palpable descriptions of various rooms decorated in tones like amethyst purples, sapphire blues and emerald greens as well as descriptions of students having their own comfy bedrooms with medical staff always on call, made me wish this sanctuary actually existed. Since Tiffany Gholar is an artist (she designed the four different book covers for this novel), writer and interior designer, trust and believe that her descriptions are impressively vivid and vibrant. Vivid descriptions + great storytelling sprinkled with suspense made this an enjoyable read.
Tiffany Gholar’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a reminder of why we need to support more Indie writers. I would give this novel 5 stars, but the words ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ were over-used for a story of this nature. Maybe the use of these words were intentional, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. One theme that’s constant in this novel is the theme of mental health awareness. Each character is dealing which his/her own stresses that have an effect on their mental and emotional health. From reading the blurb, one may think this novel is super heavy and dark, but it’s not at all. Readers will encounter a blossoming romance, crazy pharmaceutical politics, issues surrounding race, funny commentary on various students and events. Be prepared to enter a time-capsule as you travel back to 1994 when singer Tevin Campbell, Digable Planets (hip hop group) and the film ET were still popular. The novel isn’t bogged down with excessive depressing happenings – trust me on this one!
Lately, there is more and more talk in the Black community around mental health and ‘self-care’ to the point where it’s even (unfortunately) commercialized. Black/African communities rarely used to speak on the issue of mental health because they/we think everything can be prayed away. But I strongly believe seeking help through psychotherapy or finding a counsellor can be the first step towards healing – Devante, Janina, Dr. Gail and Dr. Lutkin are proof of this! I hope this novel gets the attention of various middle and high schools because Gholar’s sensitive writing is a great tool for discussing various personal issues, with young adults of color.
Special thanks to Tiffany Gholar for sending me the Dr. Gail Thomas edition of the book!
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase A Bitter Pill To Swallow on Amazon