| Awarded the designation “A Junior Library Guild Selection” for Fall 2008.
Ann Dee Ellis skillfully captures Mazzy’s determination and isolation as she struggles to care for both herself and her despondent mother while fending off what little help she is offered from the adult world.
The first-person narration is delivered in brief entries – some just a few entries long, others a few pages. These stream-of-consciousness passages gradually reveal details about Mazzy’s current and past life, including Mazzy’s little sister, Olivia, whose tragic death is the source of her mother’s depression and her father’s callous behavior.
The greatest strength of this novel lies in its true-to-life portrayals of a varied cast of characters, including an array of colorful neighbors. Mazzy’s even-handed descriptions of both the mundane and the tragic make for a touching story. It helps that Mazzy retains a sense of humor while never delving into self-pity. “This morning I ate thirteen marshmallows. . . . I got them out and they were on a plate and I ate them with chopsticks. A fly was buzzing around the kitchen. I tried to catch it with my chopsticks.”
Readers will come to care deeply about Mazzy and will rejoice when the family finally comes together to address their situation.
Impressionistic, elliptical and full of feeling, this story about an overwhelmed youngster valiantly trying to cope with her mother’s deep depression unfolds slowly, until readers finally grasp the terrible truth of the event that caused the breakdown of her once-functional family. Mazzy is trapped in a nightmare of guilt and helplessness. Her sportscaster father is off pursuing fame and fortune, leaving Mazzy stranded in the family’s increasingly disorganized home with her nearly catatonic mother. Neighbors make sporadic efforts to help, but Mazzy, who is fiercely protective of her wounded-bird mom, once a talented artist and art teacher, does her best to hide in the increasingly dire situation. Narrated in the first person, this tough but tender story gives a skewed child’s-eye view of the situation. Although readers understand more than Mazzy, who begins creating her own artwork as an emotional release, much is left ambiguous, particularly the motivations of her otherwise engaged father. What Ellis makes crystal-clear is how the tsunami of mental illness can devastate everybody in its wake.
“Everything is fine” continues to be the official line from Mazzy and her family, but it’s demonstrably not true. Mazzy’s sportscaster father has been out of town for weeks, leaving Mazzy on her own with her mother, who’s so severely depressed she won’t leave the bed even to wash herself. Though she gets occasional help from hired adults, Mazzy fiercely fends off inquiries from protective service of other perceived busybodies; she does, however, find occasional succor from a warmhearted neighbor lady, Norma, from a half-hearted acquaintanceship with the boy next door, Colby, and from her own ventures into painting in the mother’s art studio. The spare, fragmentary style that Ellis demonstrated in This is What I Did:
(BCCB 9/07) returns here, and it works equally well for tough, desperate, and essentially abandoned Mazzy. The dire unfairness of Mazzy’s situation makes for poignant reading, and the book capably conveys her anger (embodied in her practice of making ineffective karate-chop gestures at her antagonists). Since it’s utterly clear that she simply can’t handle this situation on her own, the book is laden with tension from the start, but there’s and additional thread of suspense in the slow revelation in the tragedy that sent her family into its current downspiral; the accidental death of Mazzy’s baby sister a year ago. Readers may want her disturbingly self-centered father to get more of a comeuppance that he receives, but they’ll be glad to see Mazzy’s family finding a light at the end of a very dark tunnel indeed.
Mazzy is fine. Her severely depressed, almost catatonic mother is fine—as long as Mazzy takes care of her and keeps neighbors and family-services investigators away. Her absent ESPN-host father is fine, though he’s been gone a while and Mazzy doesn’t feel like returning his calls. And the summer will be fine, as long as she can keep hanging out with Colby, her neighbor, and pursue her art. In spare prose verging on free verse, Mazzy tells her story, of her daily routines without parents, of her occasional interactions with neighbors—and of the tragic accident that recently killed her young sister and led to her family’s breakdown. Ellis impressively captures the voice of a sardonic, damaged, but surviving adolescent girl. Secondary characters are fleshed out well through Mazzy’s pointed descriptions and snappy dialogue, and Colby shines with humor and a personality that rings true. Readers are given glimpses into the family Mazzy used to have, and the girl she once was. Although the ending seems hasty and perhaps unrealistically optimistic, Ellis has created a unique snapshot of family tragedy that’s refreshingly devoid of melodrama.
When tragedy strikes and a teen becomes the parent, what happens to the teen?
Everything is far from fine in Mazzy’s life. Her parents used to be happy. They used to dance, twirling and laughing. They both used to love Mazzy. That was a long time ago. Mom is sick. She doesn’t go into her art room anymore, in fact she won’t even get out of bed. She’s stopped eating, too. Bill, who does home health care, brings Mom pills when she runs out, rolls her onto her stomach or onto her back, and helps wash her. Dad has been gone on business for weeks. He said it would only be one, but one week turned into two and two into three. Now he’s coming home. He has to — the government has become involved. Mazzy’s been going through the motions, caring for Mom, fixing food and cleaning the house. She has her own pain, but no one seems to notice, not the stuff that really matters.
What at face value seems simple becomes intricate and telling in “Everything is Fine,” an engrossing look at the resiliency of youth. Ann Dee Ellis’ spare prose is telling and poetic as she brings Mazzy’s fractured world to the page with earnest detail.
Mazzy, the heroine of Everything is Fine., is facing plenty of the challenges typical for her age. In the summer before she begins middle-school, she’s wrestling with the nature of her friendship with the boy across the street, and playing with the changes in her body by stuffing her shirt with oranges. But she’s facing unusual challenges as well: Her father is absent while trying to advance his career as a sportscaster, and her mother is practically catatonic as a result of a trauma that’s initially unspecified. Neighbors try to help, but in that way that adolescents have, Mazzy’s sure she can handle things on her own.
As she did in her debut novel This Is What I Did:, Ellis employs a staccato rhythm in which thoughts seem to be grabbed as they’re flying through the protagonist’s churning mind. They’re emotional snapshots, and they’re potent both in what they reveal explicitly and in what they show Mazzy trying to hide from herself. Most impressively, Ellis conveys the compassion of the people around Mazzy even as Mazzy herself seems unable to appreciate the help they’re offering her.
Brian Jackson, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Brigham Young University
I finished Everything is Fine in about one sitting. The writing is so crisp and minimalist and evocative that you devour the story before realizing what Ann Dee’s up to. She doesn’t give us much time to reflect, which makes it all the more necessary to pay attention to the psychological nuance. This book’s main character is as disturbing as the hapless protagonist in This is What I Did, Ann Dee’s first book, and just as endearing. She gives us limited access to a vulnerable person whose interior world seems so exposed to us, but we learn what Mazzy feels more by visual cues, her little tics and anxious movements, than what she says. Ann Dee’s prose style is more poetry than prose, which makes for fast, to-the-gut reading. Just as we’re easing into the cadence of a broken domestic life, tragedy strikes, and the tragedy serves less as a plot device than an illumination of what has gone before. Ann Dee has a keen sense of teen conversation, a mixture of stupid goofing and razor’s edge feelings. We’re more eavesdroppers than anything–interior access is barred, which makes the lightning revelations more important as they accumulate into a prose poem of fragile youth, written with charity and insight.