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A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares tackles anxiety and teen love with exuberant charm

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Krystal Sutherland’s new book, A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, is the kind of charmingly quirky YA novel that in five years will absolutely become a cult classic teen movie that underperforms at the box office. It is 2017’s answer to The DUFF, only the narration is less laced with internalized misogyny, or it’s Easy A, the book.

Esther Solar, our main character, is self-consciously peculiar in the way that only a teenager who is utterly terrified of the world can be. Every day she dresses in elaborate costumes that hide her true self from the cruelty of her peers. She has a thriving business selling black market cake at her high school, which has earned her the nickname “Cakenberg.”

And she is convinced that her family is cursed. Each one of the Solars is crippled by a single overwhelming fear. For her father, who has not left the basement in years, it’s agoraphobia. For her brother Eugene, it’s fear of the dark, with the result that every light in the house has been permanently switched on with the help of some electric tape. For her grandfather, it’s fear of water, which is what made him stop showering.

Esther believes that her family members’ greatest fears will eventually kill them, so she’s not taking any chances. She’s compiled a semi-definitive list of her greatest nightmares, from lobsters to death, and she’s determined to avoid each one. That way there’s no chance that any mild aversions will build themselves up into a full-blown phobia, and if she doesn’t have a single greatest fear, she reasons, it can’t kill her.

But then Esther reconnects with Jonah Smallwood, the small-time con artist who was her first crush. Jonah is determined to make Esther face every single nightmare on her semi-definitive list. And Esther — part enamored with Jonah, part horrified by his idea, and part convinced that if she can save herself, she can also save her brother Eugene from his own demons — decides to go along with his plan.

Thus ensues a series of adventures, some endearingly madcap, with Esther and Jonah screaming, “For humanity!” as they face off against geese (number nine on the list), and some more harrowing, with Esther having a full-blown panic attack and throwing up from anxiety when she tries to drive a car (number eight). It’s through these encounters that A Semi-Definitive List successfully examines anxiety as a mental illness, focusing on how it has shaped Esther’s life, and how she can constructively respond to it.

Less successful is the thread of magical realism running through the novel, with Esther convinced that the anxiety that runs in her family is a literal curse, and everyone else trying to explain to her that the curse story is a metaphor. Sutherland avoids coming down on one side or the other of this question until the book’s final pages, with the result that its conclusions feel wishy-washy and unconvincing.

But the rest of A Semi-Definitive List is almost entirely pure pleasure, a sweet and heartfelt story of love, fear, and mental illness. It’s funny and touching in all the best ways.