Studying fairy tales taught Mona Awad that beauty is humanity’s kryptonite.
“I’m fascinated by the shadow side of the things that we worship and hold up as our ideals,” Awad says over a phone call from her home in Boston. “Beauty absolutely is a kind of spell that we can be enchanted by, we can fall prey to, and it can make us do terrible things in spite of ourselves — we become powerless in the face of beautiful things.”
Since those graduate school days deconstructing fairy tales in the University of Denver’s doctoral creative writing program, Awad has written three novels examining the power of beauty from different angles; first in 2016 with 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, where a woman’s identity shifts with her weight loss over years. Then in 2019’s absurdist horror story Bunny, about the darker byproducts of groupthink and forced vulnerability in an MFA program. And now in All’s Well (Simon and Schuster, Aug. 3), a dark fairy tale using theater as a vehicle to explore Western society’s dismissal of pain — particularly women’s pain.
Across her oeuvre, Awad’s female protagonists search for the privilege that beauty affords: adoration, desire, absolution, acceptance, confidence, trust. But they also shun the paper-plate-deep profundity of traditional standards, becoming complex anti-heroes fueled by nuclear reactors of self-loathing and desperation. Like Nancy Botwin in Weeds, Helena in Orphan Black or Alicia Florricks in The Good Wife, Awad contextualizes her characters’ questionable behavior against their less-than-ideal circumstances, and we can’t help but root for them.
Most of the time.
In All’s Well, Awad writes from the perspective of Miranda Fitch, an associate theater professor in a financially strapped junior college program. Not so many years earlier, while playing a career-peak role as Helen in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a fall from the stage left Miranda in chronic pain, costing her a career as an actor, her marriage and any sense of joie de vivre. As she chain-smokes on the floor of her office, high on pain pills that do nothing to mask the pain that runs through her back and legs, her students in the theater down the hall waiting for class to begin, it’s more than conceivable that Miranda’s job is next on the chopping block.
“I get up,” Miranda narrates as she pulls herself off the floor to start her class, “and for a moment I fill with hideous hope. But no. The entire left side of my body is still ablaze. The right side is in painful spasm. All the muscles in my right leg still concrete. The fists in my back have multiplied. The fist behind my knee is so tight that I can’t straighten my leg at all, can only limp. My foot is still being crushed by an invisible weight.”
And no one — not her colleagues, not her students, not her ex-husband, not even her physical therapists — believes Miranda’s pain.
“That’s where the horror comes in,” Awad says, “just how isolating it can be to not have your reality acknowledged in some way, or your experience validated, to just be continually invalidated in every sphere of your life can lead you to a very isolating and dark place in your mind. And I really had to go there with Miranda.”
“From the bottle marked Take one as needed for pain, I take two,” Miranda says, still gearing herself up to leave her office. “From the bottle marked Take one as needed for muscle stiffness, I take three. I look down into the dust bowels of the plastic orange pill jar, and I briefly consider taking all of them. Throwing the window back open. Falling to the floor. Lying there and letting the snow fall and fall on my face. Pressing my hand to my chest until the pounding of my heart slows and then stops. Joe, the custodian, possibly finding me in the morning. I’ll be beautifully blue. He will grieve. Will he grieve? I picture him weeping into his broomstick. Didn’t a fairy-tale heroine die this way?”
But there are embers yet smoldering inside of Miranda, a yearning to recapture her glory days, even if only vicariously — or at least prove herself as a director. Miranda is determined to put on All’s Well That Ends Well, but her students, confused by the not-quite comedy, not-quite tragedy, are mutinously hell-bent on performing Macbeth.
It looks as though the students will get their way until Miranda happens upon three mysterious men who claim to have knowledge of her past, present and future, a way for Miranda to finally be seen… to be believed. What it will cost Miranda is unclear.
Awad blends Shakespearean worlds to send Miranda on a dark-but-hilarious journey that mirrors the plays she finds at odds within her life.
“Helen and Macbeth both have this desire that is so great for something that cannot be realized within the world of the play, and they have to take these very transgressive actions in order to make it so; they both have to turn the world of the play upside down in order to make it so,” Awad says. “I knew I would have Miranda kind of go down one path, the path of comedy, onstage, and then go down the other path, the tragedy, off stage.”
Miranda’s physical pain was familiar to Awad, who herself struggled to recover from a hip surgery some years ago. Still in pain and unstable on her feet for far longer than her doctor believed she would be, Awad eventually herniated two discs in her back, triggering a string of “neurological symptoms down my legs,” she says.
“It was just too much of a cluster, you know, the recovery,” Awad says. “I was told all the time, ‘No, no, no, your hip is supposed to be better now. You should be healed now, you should be pain free. This is very uncommon.’ I had to fight so hard to get an MRI to verify that something was going on with my legs. I still have pain in my hip to this day. It never fully healed.”
“I want to tell Mark,” Miranda tells us of her current physical therapist, “that I am capable of following instructions. That before Mark, there had been Luke, and Matt. And I had done everything they’d asked of me even though Luke had been cruel and Matt a clueless sadist. How I had followed Luke’s draconian program to a tee. His little hand-drawn illustrations of exercises, I did them, even though they made my spine and the nerves running down my leg scream. I also followed Matt’s, even though Matt looked very confused and afraid of me most of the time. All my questions and fears to which he had no clear response, no words. Umm, Matt would often say. Let me think about that.
“And I had followed Mark’s program too.”
Over and over, Miranda is overtly or covertly reminded that if she’d just believe more, commit harder, she’d recover.
But the goal posts keep moving. The pain keeps coming. No one cares. As a woman, Miranda understands the delicate balance she must keep between her misery and her joy at any given time. Lest she be a bitch. Lest she be hysterical.
“Not too much pain, am I right?” Miranda tells Hugo, the school’s set designer. “If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theater, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if need be.”