I was a smart kid in school. I got tested for the gifted program twice and took honors-track classes in school from sixth grade onward, but Saira is beyond smart. Not even the kid in my graduating class who skipped a grade, graduated with a 5.0 GPA, and went to Notre Dame for college can compare to her! It takes someone extraordinary to get through all the levels of education through medical school by the age of 16 and she DID THAT. Though her degree of intelligence was way beyond mine, her alienation from kids her age really rang true to me. I struggled with the same thing in school and seeing other “smart kids” talk online about that alienation too as well as struggles with being “perfect” and mental health problems later on indicates it could be a systemic problem. Her feeling the same way I did made her that much more real to me.
But Saira isn’t just some smart kid. She’s a hyperintelligent Indian girl and she faces challenges because of that, but her life also bleeds her culture. Some of my favorite scenes in the book were when she was around her family and they were making Indian food. Side effects of Symptoms of a Heartbreak include getting really hungry because good LORD there’s a lot of food in it and it all sounds good even to a major picky eater like me! There are plenty of times you’ll laugh and plenty where you’ll cry–and also a few where you’d like to shake Saira for letting Link think she’s a fellow patient in the first place, but she faces the consequences for her deception in a satisfying way.
The setting of Princeton Presbyterian felt just as real, though that doesn’t come from personal experience (thankfully). My mom is an R.N. and worked in various hospitals before she decided to move to clinical research and administration. She’s told me tons of stories about her time as a hospital nurse and Princeton sounded just like her various workplaces. For instance, my mom has worked with many a Dr. Cho type who didn’t have a great bedside manor and whose medical prowess was seeming gained in exchange for their ability to be decent to their co-workers.
What left me unimpressed was the handling of Dr. Davis, the hospital administrator. She isn’t a nice character to anyone, but she’s particularly vicious toward Saira and refuses to call her a doctor. Saira’s supervisor Dr. Arora tells Saira after her first meeting with Dr. Davis that “she’s like that with all of us… Especially the Indian doctors. There’s too many of us or something.” So part of Davis’s bad attitude is outright stated to be racism and yet when Davis gets in trouble with HR toward the end for (among other things) her treatment of Saira, readers learn she’s been hard on everyone since the death of her wife from cancer, which explains some things but leaves the racism unaddressed. It’s a distasteful dangling thread.
Though Chairaipotra’s co-written work with Dhonielle Clayton wasn’t my thing when I tried to read Tiny Pretty Things a few years ago, I’m glad I gave Symptoms of a Heartbreak a try. I would have missed out on a remarkable book if I’d let that previous experience get in the way.