Book Review: Hex

Written as a series of journal entries to her ex-mentor Dr. Kallas, Hex examines botanist Nell Barber in the months after she is expelled from her PhD program and breaks up with her boyfriend of two years. Nell devotes herself to her research on the detoxification of poisonous plants (which she conducts in her bare-bones apartment) and to Dr. Kallas.

The book: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

My favorite things about this book were the prose and the protagonist’s voice. I loved the run-on sentences, and the narrator’s realistically distracted thought process. It was also just fascinating to be inside Nell’s head; she has such a sharp, insightful, and funny world view. While I normally don’t prefer books to be written in the second person, I thought that it worked here. Nell is so obsessed with and devoted to her mentor, Dr. Kallas, that the idea of her writing a confessional journal to her was totally believable.

In general, I found Nell to be a sympathetic character. She makes decisions that no perfectly-functioning adult would make, but that are understandable given how lost she feels after being expelled from her PhD program and breaking up with her boyfriend. The way she clings onto her research and ex-mentor makes complete sense for someone whose sense of self came from working exceptionally hard and serving her advisor. With that said, it was clear that Nell was lost and lonely even before starting her PhD program. I think that Nell’s character would have been even more interesting if the underlying reasons for her unfocused nature had been explored more deeply.

Something else that I liked about this book was that it focused on a science grad student. Prior to Hex I had never read a novel focused on a female grad student in the sciences, and it was nice to see that representation! Some of Nell’s snarky comments about her (former) academic department had me laughing out loud because they rang so true to me. For example: The goal of the party was that it should seem, pretty much immediately afterward, that there had never been any party. I also related to Nell’s assessment that she had worked pathologically and unsustainably hard at her research before losing steam; this was really common in the department where I used to work, and I suspect that most people who have gone through demanding graduate programs can relate.

The main reason why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me was because some of the characters’ relationships weren’t very believable. Nell, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-advisor, and her ex-advisor’s husband quickly became enmeshed in a way that felt unrealistic and unsettling to me. There was one romance in particular, toward the end of the novel, that developed from seemingly out of nowhere; it felt like a convenient but not particularly compelling way to wrap up the arcs of both characters involved.

If you like stories with lost and slightly unlikable characters, I definitely recommend Hex. The writing is gorgeous and funny without being dense, and getting a glimpse into the narrator’s foggy mind was a uniquely fascinating experience.

The end of two eras: life after grad school and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Tomorrow, April 5th, at 9:00 AM EST, I will attempt to defend my Master’s thesis to my graduate advisor and committee members. With 112 pages spanning a comprehensive literature review, two scientific manuscripts, and way too many tables and figures, this thesis represents the entirety of my grad student career. If I successfully defend my thesis – if my committee members agree that the work I completed is sufficient to earn me the title of Master of Science – I will be done with this figurative chapter of my life, and move on to the next. I will move to Massachusetts, find a job, and get married to my fiancĂ© of 1.5 years – most likely in that order. The end of an era – my life as a graduate student – is scheduled for tomorrow, April 5th. Incidentally, the season finale of my favorite television program of all time, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is also scheduled for tomorrow.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca Bunch (played by the insanely talented Rachel Bloom), a successful and seemingly put-together young lawyer who moves from New York City to West Covina, California in the hopes of reconnecting with a former summer fling. As she starts her young-adult life on the opposite side of the country, Rebecca finds meaningful new friendships and embarks on a quest toward true happiness.

Rebecca falls in love with West Covina in the series’ pilot episode.

From its brilliant original musical numbers to its surprisingly feminist messages, there is a lot to love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Despite the seemingly sexist title of the show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually deconstructs numerous tropes including sexist stereotypes. In many ways, especially at the beginning of the series, Rebecca does embody characteristics of the stereotypical, obsessive, crazy ex-girlfriend. As more of Rebecca’s backstory is revealed, however, we realize that the situation is a lot more nuanced that: behind Rebecca’s unhealthy and obsessive behavior is an unstable mental health which likely resulted from unresolved childhood traumas. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend candidly and responsibly explores these mental health issues throughout the series, showing that Rebecca is so much more than just a “crazy” overly attached girlfriend.

As the series progresses, other problematic cliches – including the female rivalry between Rebecca and Valencia (the girlfriend of Rebecca’s love interest, played by Gabrielle Ruiz) – are completely flipped on their heads. This isn’t to say that characters who initially seemed unlikable are revealed to be wholly amazing. In fact, most of the characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are often unlikeable: even at her best, Rebecca is usually self-centered; Paula (Rebecca’s best friend in West Covina, played by Donna Lynn Champlin), from her scheming nature to her reputation as the “office bitch”, is controlling; and Josh (Rebecca’s first love interest, played by Vincent Rodriguez III) is irritatingly oblivious. These blatant flaws make the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend frustrating, but also relatable and honest, and remind us viewers that people are nuanced. Instead of forcing characters into boxes or reducing them to caricatures, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrates that people are complex, and often fall into “gray areas” rather than discrete “black or white” categories.

Josh’s obliviousness is perfectly highlighted in this musical number aptly named “I’ve Got My Head In the Clouds.”

In addition to flipping the script on sexist tropes and typical TV-drama cliches, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also de-stigmatizes taboo topics ranging from abortion to antidepressants. As I mentioned earlier, mental health becomes a major focus of the show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the first television show I know of that so candidly portrays the experience of trying to overcome mental health issues. In season 4, episode 12, for example, after a year of attending individual and group therapy sessions, and so much personal growth, Rebecca backslides into certain unhealthy relationship patterns and reaches one of her all-time lows. She is able to recognize her mistakes and become more grounded, but it takes a lot of work. By exploring Rebecca’s mental health issues and healing process in depth, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sheds light on the often overlooked subject of psychological health, while also portraying those who suffer from mental illness in a realistic and sympathetic manner. Other “taboo” topics that are brought to the forefront of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend include: society’s impossible expectations of female beauty, bisexuality, and periods. (warning: the third video might make some people uncomfortable).

This brings me to my next praise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: its original music is amazing. Like Rebecca herself, the songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are nuanced: I still catch new nuggets of gold every time I re-listen to my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist (yes, I made a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist). A great example of this is the song “Dream Ghost,” which takes place when Rebecca falls asleep on a cross-country plane ride and dreams she is having a poignant conversation with her therapist Dr. Akopian (played by Michael Hyatt). In just two and a half minutes, “Dream Ghost” teases the trope of characters in predicaments having life-changing revelations in their dreams, respectfully parodies Dream Girls, and also becomes a commentary on sexism in the work place! And on top of that it is well-sung and catchy!

The incredible and hilarious “Dream Ghost” scene: part musical number, part parody, part social commentary.

Most of all, though, what I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it’s the first TV show in which I truly identified with a character being portrayed on-screen. While I’ve never uprooted my entire life to chase a love interest, or been in the center of a love triangle, I do see a lot of similarities between myself and Rebecca: we are both Jewish, we are both dorky and weird, we are both professionally successful (although that doesn’t necessarily make us happy), and we both try very hard to be balanced and happy despite struggling with mental health issues.

Seeing my own experiences reflected in the character of Rebecca Bunch has helped me come to terms with my past and present self. Although it’s hinted at from the show’s very beginning, it is eventually made explicitly clear that Rebecca’s obsession with romantic relationships stems from childhood trauma. Like Rebecca, I was relationship-crazy from an early age, almost always in a relationship or seeking one. Several of my past relationships have been unhealthy, and there is one relationship in particular that I cannot think about without feeling intense, spiraling shame…or that is, I couldn’t – past tense – until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When I first saw my own previous unhealthy relationship patterns portrayed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I felt embarrassed for Rebecca, and often found her relationship drama painfully uncomfortable to watch. As I watched Rebecca grow throughout the series, however, I gained empathy and respect for her…and for myself. Realizing how much I used to have in common with season-1-Rebecca made me realize that, like Rebecca, I haven’t exactly been dealt an easy hand in terms of mental health; but also like Rebecca, I am capable of growth and change so long as I keep putting in the effort. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend guided me to the revelation that our pasts are a part of who we are, but they don’t define us.

In addition to guiding me out of unhelpful shame spirals, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has helped me by role-modeling healthy relationship patterns and mature decision-making. No character on the show is portrayed as perfectly reasonable, and we frequently watch characters struggle to do the mature thing. But, generally speaking, the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend do eventually do the mature thing. I mentioned previously that some episodes show Rebecca backsliding into unhealthy behaviors, demonstrating how difficult it can be for those with mental health issues to make healthy decisions. But after the backslides come the…frontslides? After each backslide, Rebecca picks herself up, with admirable determination and the support of her friends. After experiencing agoraphobia in season 4, episode 2, Rebecca acknowledges her feelings of shame, makes peace with them, and is ready to stop isolating herself. After the aforementioned backslide of season 4, episode 12, Rebecca realizes that she’s out of control, and initiates a beautifully candid conversation with her psychiatrist to get herself back on a path toward good mental health. Other characters – Paula, Valencia, and Nathaniel come to mind – don’t backslide per se, but they still struggle with healthy relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional), and we see them grow and mature alongside Rebecca throughout the series.

In Rebecca’s shame spiral of season 4, episode 2, she becomes obsessed with a woman who was murdered, and tries to communicate with the woman’s spirit. It is her empathy for this woman that eventually brings her out of her own shame spiral.

After four spectacular seasons of smashing hack stereotypes, de-stigmatizing mental illness, role modeling healthy behavior, and producing some of the most amazing original music numbers of all time, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes to an end tomorrow. Throughout the series we’ve watched Rebecca make impulsive decisions, behave selfishly, seek improvement, explore her passions, make meaningful friendships, and just…grow. I have no idea what the series finale has in store for Rebecca, but given the show’s theme of personal growth, I imagine Rebecca will follow whatever path is truly best for her (even if that path doesn’t involve choosing one of the three men pining after her). I would also guess that Rebecca’s ultimate decision will highlight the importance of self-acceptance and self-worth.

Unlike the fictional, four-season run of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, my very real three-ish-season run of graduate studies will not necessarily end on a poignant note. As I learned at my undergraduate commencement ceremony, and with some of the biggest accomplishments of my life (getting into graduate school, being recognized for academic achievements, and giving my last ever seminar as a grad student), hyped up life events are often underwhelming. I didn’t experience tremendous joy, relief, or revelation after giving my exit seminar earlier this week, and I don’t expect to experience them after my defense tomorrow, either (if my defense is successful, that is).

But even without any major revelations, and without new episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to guide me through an uncertain future, I can still strive to be the most sincere version of myself. I can take the example set by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and try my best to be aware, empathetic, realistic, and honest with others. I can make healthy and mature decisions, even if it sometimes takes a while to get there. I can continue putting in the work required to be fulfilled and mentally stable. And should I ever forget the lessons exemplified by the characters of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I can always re-watch their inspiring personal growth journeys. And by that I mean that I will absolutely be re-watching this beautiful, heart-stopping, breathtaking, life-changing series.