Here I am at last with my review/analysis for All’s Well! I actually read this (twice) in September, loved it and got super excited about everything I could unpick, but then just have no had the time or mental energy to really get down to it! I am very happy that my second foray into Mona Awad’s writing was also a wild ride (though I don’t think anything will ever be quite beat Bunny!) and also has many wonderful weird layers, plus literary Shakespearean threads to play with!
I have had a great time digging into this book and pulling out the themes and characters. As ever, I’m just a person on the internet with a faded English Lit. BA from 2009, these are just my thoughts which I’m sharing for fun, because I miss my book club, and in case anyone else out there wants to get excited about this book with me (and recommend me other awesome stuff like this!).
I realise not everyone wants to read 3,000 words of analysis, so before we start here is a quick review in my usual “mini review” format!
But first, a Mini Review!
I loved it, obviously.
- A twisty unreliable narrator that goes from sympathetic to the villain in her own story!
- The writing is clever, viscerally describes the experience of chronic pain (clearly from the authors own experiences) and misogyny in a medical establishment run by men.
- Delicious Shakespearean witchcraft, references and themes as the novel hangs between Macbeth and All’s Well That Ends Well.
- Atmospheric, visual and spooky, it gave me David Lynch (Twin Peaks) vibes.
It does have an ambiguous ending that not all readers may love, but thematically I think its fitting.
If you did enjoy Bunny, then I think you’ll enjoy this one too! It’s narrative is more straightforward and it doesn’t have the guts and gore!
Ok, into the analysis!
Here is a handy table of contents if you want to skip about!
*** OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT! ***
- But first, a Mini Review!
- Ok, into the analysis!
- *** OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT! ***
- Writing & Setting
College drama teacher Miranda Fitch endures a waking nightmare of excruciating chronic pain that has destroyed her life. Just as she is losing her last battle to put on the play All’s Well That Ends Well she gains the mysterious power to transfer her pain to others. Like Bunny, this is a darkly funny, twisty novel with unexplained creepy magical elements.
Taking references from All’s Well That Ends Well and Macbeth, the plot of this one is more straightforward than Bunny, but it still retains some of that delicious ambiguity. Plenty of characters witness and comment on the weirdness so I think we are safe to assume that this is happening! How it’s happening is merely by way of vague handwavy Shakespearean magic and I didn’t feel I needed to know more than that because I enjoyed being swept up in it. I don’t care to get bogged down in the details of how the magic works, it’s just magic – and isn’t it all the creeper if you don’t know how or why it’s happening?
Miranda was once a promising theatre actress but a tragic accident during a performance of Macbeth cut her career short and left her with debilitating chronic pain. Now a shell of her former self her marriage has ended, all her relationships have suffered, and she is dependent on painkillers to the point she is in danger of losing her job. The novel starts with Miranda at her literal lowest lying on the floor of her office.
Once she gains the mysterious power to transfer her pain there is a gradual but accelerating shift as the freedom from pain brings back her confidence and power. However, any joy found in the respite of returning to health quickly tips into an unstoppable mania that quite literally levitates her, but has a no less destructive effect on her life and those around her.
No one is afraid of me. How long since anyone has been afraid of me, really?
I love the way the change in Miranda gradually creeps in. At the beginning I felt so awful for her, but as the mania and frenzy builds the things she says and does become more destructive, cruel and dangerous until she is the villain in her own story.
They stare up at me, the tails of my black coat blowing behind me, standing straight in my heeled boots, taller than I have ever been, casting my shadow over them. Is it just them or have I grown taller in the past month?
Miranda has an unhealthy fixation on two of her teenage students, though for very different reasons. I think they reflect different aspects of her character.
Briana is beautiful, glowing with health, supremely confident and through the privilege of wealthy donor parents can wield a power that usurps Miranda’s authority. She is Miranda’s rival and main villain, at least in the story she tells herself. Without the intervention of the three strange men, Briana would have got her way to perform Macbeth.
But Briana’s smile doesn’t even break when she sees me hobbling to the stage toward her. Broken woman. Hag. Unsexed. No charms left. No fashion sense. Wildly unchristian. She can handle this. She can handle me. Her dancer-girl posture says this. The defiant upward tilt of her small, pointed chin. It’s fine. It’s already done.
I think Miranda recognises a healthier, stronger version of herself in Briana which is especially painful in contrast to her present state of instability and weakness. She uses Briana’s imagined voice for her self-hatred and pity. It was inevitable that Briana would be the first recipient of her pain, to drain her youth and vigour and to humble her. This instigates the most dramatic reversal in power that propels the second half of the story.
Not only does she not get her way when the play becomes All’s Well That Ends Well, but due to her sudden ill health, Briana also loses the starring role of Helen to Ellie, just as Miranda wanted. However she ends up in the role of the sick elderly King through sheer force of will, and the irony in this is that her new experience of pain and sickness allows her to give her most authentic and powerful stage performance.
Ellie is the counterpoint. Pale-faced, dressed in black with dyed black hair she is quiet, meek, intense and a little creepy. Miranda likes Ellie perhaps because she lacks the power of Briana.
Ellie enters hesitantly, as she always does. Wearing her sad-girl clothes. Her no-color hair hangs lank around her bloodless face. Her gray eyes are, as usual, mournful. Her hands tremble at her sides, the fingers twitching uselessly, performing an anxious arithmetic. It gives me such joy to see her.
She uses Ellie as a malleable representation of herself – the underdog – but she has no interest in who Ellie is, or to take her seriously. We learn she is a teenage witch, who gives Miranda some herbal baths mixes to help her pain (more on this later), but Miranda immediately discards them.
It exudes an overwhelmingly botanical scent, like I’m being punched in the face by a thousand flowers.
Miranda is unhealthily fixated on Ellie, insisting that she play Helen so that she becomes a literal stand-in for herself that she can direct. In one very uncomfortable scene, she makes Ellie and Trevor, Brianna’s boyfriend who plays Bertram, repeatedly kiss despite the play’s script not calling for this. She frequently imagines a relationship between Ellie and Trevor.
I look at Trevor, smiling at Ellie, patting her shoulder. Rubbing it, really. Did they fuck last night? I wonder. Was it Ellie’s first time? Perhaps Ellie was fucking Trevor while I was fucking Hugo. How amazing would that be?
Grace: Hidden Cruelties in Friendship
Grace is Miranda’s assistant and her only friend. Of a sturdy build, and described as “healthy as a horse. Utterly unkillable” she contrasts Miranda’s lived experience and therefore cannot empathise. Grace used to support Miranda and take her to medical appointments, but then she committed the unforgivable sin of suggesting the pain was all in her mind and their friendship crumbled.
Their relationship explores the tricky power dynamics that can exist in female friendships as a result of internalised misogyny, where women consciously or not feel in competition with each other. Miranda does love Grace, but she is also jealous of her health and frustrated with her lack of understanding. She makes frequent references to elements of Grace’s life that she sees as somehow sad or worth pity (she’s a single woman with a pet lizard, her home décor choices, practical wardrobe etc) to reassure herself that Grace’s life isn’t so perfectly happy either.
She could raise her boot and stomp on my face if she wanted to. Probably a small part of her does. Because that’s what you do with the weak, and Grace comes from Puritan stock, a witch-burning ancestry. Women who never get colds. Women who carry on.
Miranda resents that offers of help were out of obligation, pity or perhaps an enjoyment in the power found in her reliance on Grace. There are frequent references to her position on the floor with Grace standing over her. I think this says more about Miranda than about Grace, after all, we don’t really know what Grace thinks or feels, and we can observe throughout the novel that feeling powerful is absolutely important to Miranda, and this is another notable power shift in the novel.
Usually I’m the one on the ground and it’s Grace looking down at me. Rolling her eyes at my body on the floor. With exasperation. Impatience. Kindness too, I remind myself. Wasn’t there kindness? Grace wanted to help me. And that’s all I want to do right now. Help Grace. I’m looking kindly at her. Kindly as I reach out my hand. Kindly as I touch her limp wrist.
Miranda uses her power on Grace as she is reaching the height of her mania. Grace is already afraid of her by this point, and unlike her previous victims, her crimes against Miranda are smaller and less easy to define. Briana and Mark are acts of desperate self-defence, but she attacks Grace as she tries to scramble away from her. She then makes a performance (in her inner monologue) of “helping” Grace but these are superficial and materialistic actions. A sick person who can’t get out of bed doesn’t want to deal with endless deliveries of flowers and food they weren’t consulted about (something Miranda should know). These are more demonstrations of power that violate Grace’s boundaries.
Pain & Performance
The strongest theme in this novel is invisible pain and the struggle to make others understand. The novel opens with Miranda watching an actress in an advert for painkillers and critiquing her performance.
Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm. Her mouth is a thin grimace. Her dim eyes attempt to accuse something vague in the distance, a god perhaps. Her bloodless complexion is convincing, though they probably achieved this with makeup and lighting.
I found the way that pain is described in this book to be really effective. I’ve never had any terrible chronic pain in my life, but I know people – women – who do and this book made me think of them. The writing is visceral, I can feel Miranda’s heaviness and defeat.
Maybe she is one of the Nerve Women. Women of the invisible pain. Women alight with blinking red webs. No spider in sight. But the web is there.
Miranda is very conscious that she has to perform her pain for others to acknowledge it. She performs for doctors and therapists to explain her pain and get treatment. She also feels that she must perform as a perfect cooperative patient and take their treatments and therapies when she knows they will not help or even may make things worse, which they often do and trap her in an endless cycle of worsening symptoms. She is conscious that if she pushes back against them she will be viewed as being dramatic, as an “actress” and what little help she has will be withdrawn.
My pain was my dead mother, my divorce, my failed aspirations for the stage.
Nobody has been able to offer Miranda a solution to her pain, everyone wants to dismiss it as psychosomatic rather than physical. This dismissal only makes things more unbearable, especially when it comes from her ex-husband, and her friend Grace.
There is an impossible balance between the need to perform to communicate, but also not being seen to be performing.
Misogyny & Pain Management
They break whoever they touch, Ms. Fitch. Your bank, your bones, your spirit.
All of the doctors, surgeons and therapists that Miranda sees are a cast of unsympathetic and sadistic men (the three physical therapists we have named are – rather Biblically – Mark, Luke and John). It is well known that the medical establishment has an issue with treating women’s pain, and that patients are often dismissed. We already discussed the need to perform for doctors to be taken seriously. Miranda also recalls her doctors talking to her husband instead of her in appointments, and the scene lifted from Mona Awad’s own lived experience.1
The bartenders at The Canny Man are always male, but when Miranda does see another patron at the spooky bar taking the golden remedy it is a woman, and the other patients she sees at Mark’s clinic are also women. The three strange men are a gender-flipped version of Macbeth’s three witches. They take away Miranda’s pain but only conditionally, only if she puts on a performance for them to judge as good enough.
It’s also of note that three men run the College, and therefore exert control over Miranda’s role as theatre director. The theatre department is also being squeezed of funding (an all-female department), and such must rely on the donations of Brianna’s parents, and by extension her teenage whims. These three men conduct the “witch trial” meeting when Brianna accuses Miranda of making her sick.
The dean in the middle. Flanked by the president on one side, the vice president on the other. Varying degrees of hair loss. Varying degrees of compensatory combing. Three pairs of watery eyes regarding me with neutral expressions. Three pairs of hairy hands clasped. A golden ring gleaming on each of their left hands.
The novel is a little ambiguous about whether Ellie’s bath remedy really did have an effect, but the ending does suggest that the accidental “bath” Miranda took might be the thing that saved her from further injury. Considering the theme of misogyny in the male-dominated medical establishment, and the three uncanny men, who all failed Miranda I like the idea that it was Ellie’s teenage witchcraft that helped Miranda in some small way in the end.
I think it could have been so much worse. Even the doctors were shocked that you weren’t more hurt. Almost annoyed that they couldn’t doctor you more or something.” She smiles. “It’s such a good thing you took that bath. I think maybe it saved you.
There are two Shakespeare plays that act as tent poles for the novel.
Miranda’s students want to play Macbeth, which is of course one of the best-known tragedies that focuses mainly on the pain and trials of men at war. There are some obvious elements borrowed from Macbeth – the three canny men stand in for the witches but there is also a recurring motif of Miranda reflected in threes; Ellie’s female witchcraft contrasting dismissive ineffectual men; anf Miranda’s descent into madness and ultimately guilt is not unlike Lady Macbeth’s (lots of references to blood and red). It is also of note that it was while playing Lady Macbeth that Miranda fell off the stage, causing the back injury that would ruin her life.
All’s Well That Ends Well
‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven.’ ” Act One, Scene One. Lines 218–219 from Helen’s soliloquy
All’s Well That Ends Well is a lesser-known and rarely performed Problem Play because its flawed comedy is notoriously different to stage and strike the right tone. All’s Well, the play, is focused on the female pain and cunning of Helen as she schemes to win over the (unworthy) Bertram.
a play that is disturbing but not in an obvious bloodbath/orgy way; that is witchy without the cackling hags; that is funny-sad rather than simply sad; that is dark-light, rather than just dark, just light; that is problematic, provocative, complex, and mysterious; a hidden mountain flower growing in the shade of Shakespeare’s canon
Miranda As Helen
Miranda’s own performance as Helen was the height of her career, something she is immensely proud of. It was following this performance that she met her now ex-husband Paul and she returns to this time as the happiest in her life, when she was pain-free, loved, beautiful and powerful. She strongly identifies with Helen both as a character and as a past version of herself. I see her desire to stage All’s Well as a final attempt to reclaim something of her past self as she is rapidly reaching the end of her road.
How I saw Helen as a woman in deep emotional pain that no one in the world of the play could understand. Except for the audience, of course. And all because Bertram didn’t love her, didn’t even see her, he was blind.
The Play Plot & Characters
Helen the character is in love with a man in a higher social position than her in the French Court. She uses her healing abilities to cure the dying King and reward the husband of her choice, which is of course Bertram. Bertram however is not happy about this, he runs off to war and refuses to consummate the marriage unless she completes two “impossible” tasks – to get the ring off his finger, and for her to be pregnant with his child. She pulls this off by making a deal with the young virgin woman Bertram is obsessed with, switching places and tricking him into having sex with her. When this is revealed in the end Bertram is embarrassed but also somehow sees this as a positive, accepts Helen as his wife and “all’s well that ends well.”
You can see why it’s a tricky one! – though Elizabethan’s wouldn’t have had a problem with the “bed trick” part as modern audiences would, it is hard to see how for Bertram things end “well” after he is trapped in a forced marriage. His switch into declaring his “love” is very abrupt! On the other hand, it’s hard to see what the beautiful, intelligent and talented Helen sees in Bertram in the first place. He is a meanspirited liar and a womaniser. It’s hard to know who to be happy for, if anyone!
Elements in the novel
All’s Well the novel has fun with many elements from the play. The links between Helen’s invisible emotional pain and Miranda’s are explicit, as are the witchcraft elements and the ambiguous ending. Miranda’s self-identify merges with Helen, along with her perception (and fixation) on casting Ellie in the role. Ellie who takes the place of Brianna (Trevor/Bertram’s girlfriend), actually heals The King (Brianna) on stage and has a power that Miranda never really sees, and this is easy for the reader to miss too.
We enter the place, Paul and I. I mean Hugo and I, I’m with Hugo. He’s holding my hand.
A reversal of the “bed trick” idea is also toyed with as Miranda starts up an intense sexual relationship with Hugo, the stage hand who previously never acknowledged her, she begins to hallucinate him phasing with her ex-husband Paul.
Writing & Setting
I am a big fan of Mona Awad’s writing and how she can bring subtle shifts in character perspectives from the relatively sane into swept-along hallucinatory mania. I find it so effective. I loved descriptions of The Canny Man as it warped and transformed during her encounters with the three men. This vibe felt “Lynchian” and reminded me of the red room in Twin Peaks, that kind of vibe. Everything heightened and a little off-kilter, nothing ever really explained.
Enjoy the ride in this misty, misty room with its dark red walls. Room suddenly seems redder somehow, is that possible? Lots of animal heads on the walls, I notice now. Stags. Black goats. Regarding me with their glassy black eyes that glint. Never noticed that before.
I really enjoyed the later sections of the novel where Miranda’s becoming completely untethered from reality. I loved the descriptions of her “weird, trilling laughter” that might be at odds with what is happening, of “biting grins” and her somehow unsettling “red mouth” bag. You know I loved an unreliable narrator, and especially a batshit unhinged one!
I had just as much fun unpacking All’s Well as I did Bunny, it even forced me to reach back to my extremely dusty memories of studying Shakespeare! These complex, layered, twisty weird books remind me of why I love reading.
Bunny is still my favourite because its just so weird and fucked up, but All’s Well is also a book I’ll remember and I think anything I spend this long reading and analysis I have to award five stars.
- From a great interview at the end of my Kindle copy of the book. ↩︎