Have you ever read a book and thought; “I love what this wants to be but not so much what it is.”? That’s how I feel about Symptomatic by Danzy Senna; I love the themes in this book, and I connect with the main character on several levels but the story itself was nothing that spectacular.
We follow a young reporter who has just left her unconventional home and family in California and moved to New York for a job. She is lonely, bad at relationships, and determined to prove herself to a family that thinks her dreams of an office job at a magazine are ludicrous. It’s very much the type of story I enjoy where we just sort of see a person existing in life. If you know anything about Danzy Senna you will know going into this book that our protagonist is half black and half white though you wouldn’t know it looking at her; this is how Senna herself appears and it makes sense that that is the experience of her protagonists. Write what you know, and all that. This means that race, racism, and the struggles of not appearing to be who you are all come up and play a significant part on the overall plot. And we do get an overall plot eventually, it sneaks up on us and before you know it everything is very Single White Female. I caught that about halfway in and I’ve only ever seen bits of that movie once so it is that obvious.
The book goes from walking simulator with a nameless protagonist to thriller at the blink of an eye and then it’s over. Nothing too special about it honestly, but because I connected with the main character I did love it.
Telling the story of a biracial person is why I adore Sennas work, I feel she writes books about my life, the little everyday struggles of being biracial without writing a book about race. My life isn’t about race, but race comes up quite a damn bit, if that makes sense. That is what some people don’t seem to like. With each book of hers I read I see “tragic mulatto” all over the reviews, and yes, that is a trope that is present in her books. Tropes aren’t inherently bad, they are just things that are used and seen often; they become negative when paired with the words “overused”, “cliche”, “been done before”. For the people who have described Sennas work in such a manner I think they need to reevaluate what the tragic mulatto trope is; it is the story of a mixed person who doesn’t fit in, may be sad or depressed because of it, struggles to find their place, etc. It was used a lot in anti-interracial marriage propaganda as a “think of the children” ploy. Now I see it every time a multiracial protagonist feels disphoia, or loneliness, etc. I see the words “tragic mulatto” thrown out in ways that suggest and eye roll. It’s a bit insulting. These are stories written by people about their real experiences so calling those experiences cliche, to me, sounds like you’re just complaining that you can’t relate and so they must just be whining.
I won’t harp about this any longer though. After I finished reading I gave this book 4 stars because i had devoured it in a sitting and had not stopped being entertained but after letting it stew I’m thinking it’s more of a 3.5. Without the race issues the books isn’t all that interesting once you realize it’s Single White Female (I’ve heard more people compare it to Passing but I’ve never read that). The nameless protagonist is interesting, but in hindsight she’s just like the faceless protagonists in video games, bland because giving her a stronger personality would break the player/reader immersion. So while I love the writing, and the experience was fun it’s not something I’m going to rave about.