My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel
by Tanya J. Peterson
Inkwater Press

"Everybody has struggles and difficulties. It's part of being human."

As a teacher, counselor, and advocate writing to promote a better understanding of mental health issues, Peterson's Life in a Nutshell is a powerful and poignant novel. Here we meet Brian Cunningham, a thirty-seven year old man isolated and consumed by mental anguish. Working as a school custodian, he suffers from extreme anxiety and makes every effort to avoid people and situations. He bikes to work, shops only at night, and has recently suffered the loss of his beloved beagle, Oscar, his one and only friend. His overbearing mother insists he see a therapist. When Brian unexpectedly forms a bond with new student Abigail, an emotionally and physically abused child who has bounced in and out of foster homes, his desire to help this troubled girl ultimately serves as the impetus for his venturing beyond his own confining "nutshell." In essence these characters are two sides of the same coin, each demonstrating a need for human connection.

The underlying root of Brian's dysfunction remains hidden until the latter part of the book. Fortunately Peterson holds our attention by steadily peeling back the layers of this likeable character as he continues to elicit our empathy. Intelligent, technically savvy, and artfully talented as demonstrated by his origami handiwork and beautifully landscaped gardens that offer a common ground sanctuary, Brian is truly caught in the grip of his irrational fears. Clearly an idiosyncrasy of his disorder. The author creatively uses nature as a central source of solace for her characters. Hiking or sleeping out under the stars offers a sense of calm for Brian, while Abigail enthusiastically relates to his fairytale horticultural accomplishments.

"Why am I so utterly ridiculous? Why can't I do even one thing like deciding what to wear without turning it into a problem? I'm worse than Charlie Brown. At least he still has his beagle." While Brian may epitomize the adult version of the ever-lovable downtrodden Charles Schulz comic strip personality, like Schulz, Peterson treats her character with a gentle respect. The focus on anxiety, avoidance, and self-deprecation will ultimately reveal a special individual with a gracious heart. Peterson's writing is sensitive and engaging. As readers become invested in the outcome of her memorable characters, hopefully the ultimate triumph will be in helping to lessen the stigma that often surrounds such psychological disorders. Written from a very clear and well-informed perspective, Peterson should be lauded for navigating the field of mental illness and presenting important relative issues in an affable fiction manner. It is a truly fine work that entertains, as well as informs.

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