MS Novel Review: So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith’s So Lucky is dubbed a compelling fictional narrative recounting one woman’s experience with multiple sclerosis onset.
Naturally, I had to read it. After all, it’s unusual to find characters in novels or short stories who have multiple sclerosis, and even less so for protagonists who face the crisis of a demyelination attack head-on.
About So Lucky
So Lucky recounts the story of Mara, an AIDS foundation professional and martial arts practitioner who, while facing the fact she is about to lose her wife, experiences her first attack of MS and, within a week’s time, becomes diagnosed.
That’s perhaps the kindest, gentlest way to describe the story because it’s hardly as simple as any of this.
We see Mara as a woman who does everything at 1000 percent, committed and political, technologically savvy, someone who has zero desire to join Club Victim.
Naturally, her instincts (and her background in self-defense) teach her to fight against demons both biological and social: for instance, she rages when friends and colleagues turn away after she experiences, and they witness first hand, the outward signs of her failing body.
The story, already couched in the dark news of her diagnosis, falls into a deeper, emergent, overarching plotline: she discovers a string of crimes committed against chronically ill people. Mara believes they might be linked to her use of mailing lists she purchased to augment her digital reach for the foundation she has spearheaded.
Mara’s frustration with not being taken seriously by her peers or the police, her paranoia surrounding an invisible perpetrator she thinks will eventually find her, and the consuming disability and pain she endures at the hands of demyelination make for a page-turning read.
About the title, So Lucky
The title comes from a repeated phrase throughout the book, which can be interpreted in any number of ways.
(I know, as a person with MS, I’ve been told I’m “so lucky” by so many others: people with cancer, or poor insurance, or lacking a support system, or with disabling physical symptoms.)
“So lucky” can connote “look on the bright side,” or it can suggest something more sarcastic. I believe Griffith intended this phrase to be taken for all of its meanings.
About the author
Griffith is known in the literary community as the voice of an unabashed feminist. In real life, she teaches women’s self-defense, speaks out on gender bias within the publishing ecosystem, and has been vocal about residual PTSD she experienced after a bar fight put her in the hospital. She was diagnosed with MS in 1993.
She’s garnered many awards for her literary and genre writing, including the elite James Tiptree Jr Award, the Lambda Award, the Locus Award, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist.
Her authentic, unapologetic, sometimes ferocious worldview is not lost in the way Griffith shapes Mara in So Lucky to be a natural warrior, suspicious of systems that reward privilege, and angry about the way MS has boxed her in (physically and socially). Mara must find a way to survive its pain and tyranny.
Questions raised in the book
Griffith told Crosscutin an interview that "the first inklings of this book happened many years ago, not too long after I was diagnosed, when I heard a news report about a guy in a wheelchair who’d been tortured and murdered. That’s what set off the train of connecting personal vulnerability to group-identity vulnerability and what it’s like to actually be victimized."
In the novel’s notes, some important questions unfold that mirror both Mara's inner struggle and outward fears:
- “…what do you do when you find out that the story you’ve been told, the story you’ve told yourself, is not true?”
- “How can you fight if you can’t trust your body?”
- “Who can you rely on if those around you don’t have your best interests at heart, and the systems designed to help do more harm than good?”
For Griffith, the answer to all of these questions is to fight back anyway. Redefine your own truth. Use what strengths you still have. Find ways around the systems. These are hopeful and empowering messages I take away gladly from the book.
For readers of Griffith’s previous work, this novel may seem like a bit of a departure. Her work typically isn’t “mainstream” (no surprise there), falling more comfortably inside the more idea-driven genres of speculative and science fiction.
Fans might be confused or put off by the narrative in So Lucky, which takes a left turn away from established reader expectations. On the other hand, maybe this is how she intended to raise awareness about the vagaries of MS. Griffith certainly pulls no punches.
People with MS who read her book will likely recognize and relate to the thread of rage against powerlessness that’s quite apparent throughout the novel… So much so that I’m not sure every reader will appreciate it without also understanding the author’s personal history. The tension in the narrative feels as tight at a pit bull’s locked jaw at times.
However, I found some aspects of her depiction of a person undergoing an MS attack to be realistic from both a descriptive standpoint and emotional level. Fear, anger, and a sense of powerlessness are things all people with MS can relate to, even if the symptoms aren't all the same.
Everyone is different
Still, the novel is a “snowflake,” just like MS itself: a singular story that doesn’t— nor should it— represent the experience of having MS.
Personally, my experience with MS has been slow and long: MS hugs at age 10, two cases of mono, a lifetime of disabling fatigue, and more and different symptoms that occurred over years and not days.
But it’s not for me to fault the author for writing an experience that’s different from mine. I simply want to point out that old chestnut, “everyone is different.”
How the story may have been different as a memoir
Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder why Griffith chose to write this story as fiction, rather than by way of memoir.
In some ways, I’m glad she did; fiction categorically lacks the voices of the chronically ill. Maybe her work will inspire other writers with MS to create new fictions which show the realities, hopes, motivations, and challenges that characterize living with MS.
In other ways, I am curious how this book would be different had she told her story from the front lines rather than wrap it up within a psychological thriller with shades of irrealism.
Finally, I’m not sure the end was satisfying for me, but then, who with MS sees life as having any kind of satisfying conclusion?
Touché, Nicola, touché.
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