Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

made you up

Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

The author of Made You Up, Francesca Zappia, says that she did a lot of research on schizophrenia when writing this novel. While I cannot doubt whether she did or not – because I am certain she would have – I decided to do my own research (just for fun). There were some hazy areas for me while reading this book. I studied schizophrenia extensively when I was in university (though it does not make me an expert), but because that was two years ago, I had to refresh my memory.

I consulted Wikipedia for a quick refresher. Things started to come back to me. I consulted my Clinical Psychology textbooks, and a few articles from the American Psychiatry Association. I consulted the DSM-IV (I don’t have access to the DSM-V, but I heard subtypes were removed, so there’s that). So that’s roughly, what, twenty, thirty minutes of research?

Here is what I found from my cursory search: Zappia’s portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia is sketchy. The novel’s main character, Alex, possesses positive symptoms, but does not have any distinct impairments that are typical in schizophrenia, i.e. deficits in expression of speech, emotion, thought disturbances, and/or avolition. People with schizophrenia have positive symptoms and negative symptoms (note: negative in this context means ‘in absence of’, not ‘bad/undesirable’). To show only the positive symptoms – and let’s be blunt, positive symptoms of schizophrenia are exaggerated and sensationalized in mass media – and neglect another side is sloppy and lazy writing. It makes its portrayal of schizophrenia unrealistic, and in extension exploitative. It does a great disservice to people with schizophrenia to use their condition as a plot device, rather than a meaningful, honest exploration of what it means to be schizophrenic.

I have met a woman with schizophrenia. In a talk she gave, she talked about her extremely strong delusions that she had when she was around Alex’s age. Her delusion was that she would receive a phone call from God who would tell her how to save the world. This woman, with her vivid accounts of how this delusion impaired almost every area of her life, I believe; Alex, I do not. Whilst I acknowledge that strength of delusion varies over time, Alex’s incessant checking for trackers and/or poison in her food felt more like accessories in the narrative to remind the reader of her illness. There is no analysis, or so much as a glance, of where or when this delusion arose. There is no context or story behind something that occupies her thoughts and dictates her behaviour, and because of this, it was shallow; a mere habit that readers should accept as a fact of her life.

Here is where I feel torn. Yes, Zappia should have taken more care to portray schizophrenia correctly, because misrepresentation is harmful (schizophrenia has a high comorbidity with depression, and a lot of people with schizophrenia commit suicide and are homeless) and can perpetuate misconceptions (people with schizophrenia suffer a lot of stigma, which can be just as, if not more, damaging than the mental illness itself). Although Zappia’s largely inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia is problematic, strip away this flaw and you will find that this book is not about schizophrenia, nor it is about mental illnesses. At its very heart, Made You Up is about struggling with something that is real to you and invisible to everyone else, and that something is an irrevocable part of your life.

Made You Up had a strong and promising start. The mundane and fantastical interweave in the narrative, as reality and fantasy blur together. Zappia explores the relationship between the subject and reality, and illustrates how disturbing and frightening these discrepancies of subjective truth can be for the narrator. The fear of being unable to distinguish reality from imagination seeped into my consciousness; I was constantly questioning Alex’s perceptions, and afraid for her that she might misconstrue something. Alex’s unreliable narrative is compelling, and there was something engaging about her unflinching awareness of her condition.

What ultimately fails in this book is that the tone and direction radically change midway through the book. The characters’ pretenses begin to crack, revealing empty husks capable of repetitive, idle dialogue (maybe except Miles), and facades of typical high school caricatures – the hypermasculine jock, the bitchy cheerleader, and the misunderstood but quirky misfits. For a book that is about dispelling stereotypes, Made You Up utilizes many and neglects to develop a majority of its cast (the worst perpetrators are those in the club — and they are the ones the reader are meant to like). The relationship between the protagonist and the deuteragonist eventually loses momentum, and thus turns to eccentric romance in an attempt to reinvigorate the story. The change from frenemies to romantically-interested was so jarring and contrived that when it happened, I was so confused that I re-read the chapter to make sure that I had read it right (I did). The plot, initially atmospheric and introspective, transforms into an absurd school mystery/conspiracy that hinges on shock value to trigger cheap excitement. And isn’t it ironic that the person behind the conspiracy is mentally ill? This book is all sorts of hypocritical.

The appeal of Made You Up lies in the fact that it is a seemingly raw portrayal of someone struggling with a mental illness. Underneath this facade, it is a lacklustre romance that subsists because the reader is too distracted by red herrings (intentional or not) to notice that there isn’t much substance in the story. I wanted very much to like Made You Up. There are some true, genuine moments, so it is by all means not a terrible book. Unfortunately, they were outweighed by its lack of depth, disjointed plot, and its uninspired execution. Read Made You Up for its dialectic on reality and identity, but if you are looking for a book about mental illnesses, give this book a miss.

Rating: 2/5

Book Information
Book Name: Made You Up
Author: Francesca Zappia
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers New Zealand

It didn’t fit in the review, so here’s a post-review rant.

I once believed that mental illness needed a stronger presence in YA fiction. Today, I would like to amend that statement. I want mental illness to have a stronger presence, but more importantly, I want meaningful, thoughtful, and well-researched portrayals of mental illness. The biggest obstacles for youth with mental illness today is that they are misunderstood, and ableist language is deeply intertwined with everyday language. This needs to change, and it can begin with authors who not only have an interest in elucidating the abundance of misconceptions in society, but also make an effort to become acquainted with people and communities who have lived experience. If you want to start dialogue about a serious topic, you sure as hell need to know what you are talking about.


20 thoughts on “Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

  1. Are you going to start drawing pics of all of your reviews because YAAASSSSS your art makes me so happy!!

    I really liked the synopsis for this book but sorry to hear that the plot was ultimately sloppy and disjointed! I agree that when trying to portray things like diversity and mental illnesses it’s not enough for it just to be there, it needs to be researched well and presented in a respectful way as well. Fantastic review!!

    • Heheh, I’m going to try my best! I’m dreading the covers with human faces though UGHHH.

      Believe me, I really liked it too. I was so excited to read this but meh, it just didn’t work for me. Absolutely!! Representation is important but if the representation sucks then it has potential to do more harm than good. sigh.

      Thank you, thank you, as always! <3

  2. Loved your review but sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it! This book has been on my shelf for a couple months now so I’ll probably give it a read soon.

    I also majored in psychology and have some clinical training so I’m a bit disappointed to hear that it isn’t a realistic or well thought out representation of schizophrenia and mental illness. I was really hoping that it would be good since I’m not aware of very many YA novels about schizophrenia.

    • Thank you Jenna! I’m sorry too, I really wanted to like it, esp for the reason you pointed out (we need more YA novels about mental illness)!

      Ooh hey that’s cool! We’re buddies. :) Well, if you ever give it a go, I’d love to hear your perspective; that’d be super interesting! And besides, I may not be right – my review was mostly intuitive (with the evidence I found anyway)!

  3. Oh my, I’m so sorry to hear this didn’t work out because I’d heard amazing things about it and I’m always interested in books about mental illness. Sometimes it really takes a person with a touch more experience with the subject matter to notice these discrepancies :( And yeah, diverse representation is important, but it should be well-researched and respectful. Still, it’s a step ahead for writers to at least try, no?

    • I’m sorry too! Truly, I really wanted to like this book but bleh, ignoring the qualms I had wouldn’t have done much good. If you want to read a good book about mental illness, that is pretty similar to Made You Up, give ‘Charm & Strange’ by Stephanie Kuehn a go.

      Absolutely. I cannot fault them for trying, and of course no matter what you right, esp when it is closely tied to lived experiences, there will be people whose experiences do not align with what is represented.

  4. Lovely review, Chooi! I lovelovelove the book cover you made too; it’s a true likeness! :D I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy this one, I definitely can see your points. I actually just added a couple of young adult titles that deal with mental health and this was one of them. I was a little worried about it after reading some reviews. You’re so right. It’s hard to find novels that actually portray mental illness/health accurately. I think it’s because a lot of authors know that a good majority of readers don’t have a lot of background info on the these subjects and hope that readers find characters to be relatable despite the flaws in terms of realistic portrayal. But it’s so much more brilliant and impressive when the extensive research is done right!

    • Aw, hehe, thank you Summer! c:
      Thank you for seeing my perspective! Tbh I did enjoy it, just found it too problematic for me to give a good rating. Like I said to another blogger, I think this book isn’t bad because it can be a gateway to awareness and empathy – I just wish it was better-researched.

      And that’s not a bad thing! We are all ignorant to something, and I am especially. But then it’s great that we can have discussions about what is good/bad, etc. :)

    • Hi J! Thank you for commenting. :) I’m sorry I didn’t like it too. I wanted to, but the cons just outweighed the pros for this one. I’m glad you enjoyed it though! :D

  5. I’m sorry to see that you didn’t enjoy this one that much! I do understand your reasons though. This book isn’t perfect (although I myself loved it) and especially for someone who has background knowledge on schizophrenia and its symptoms, I can see how this book isn’t the best.
    Lovely review! Beautifully written and insightful as always. <3

    • I’m sorry too! :( I wish I liked it, because aside from its portrayal of schizophrenia, it is otherwise a decent book! Sigh, oh well.

      Thank you Analee again! <3

  6. I just finished this book and was googling what other people thought about Zappia’s portrayal of mental illness because it seemed sketchy to me while reading. I really wish that Zappia did her research better, did she genuinely think she was portraying schizophrenia correctly or did she have incorrect sources or did she do in on purpose to make a cute YA novel ending, I have no idea.

  7. Wonderfully written review – very insightful. I recently read and reviewed Eliza & Her Monsters, which I really loved. So I’ve been keeping Made You Up under my radar for quite some time. Now that I’ve read your review I’m not so sure anymore. I agree with you on your rant. I feel as though mental illness needs to have a much stronger presence and give a more fluid message to readers. I think it needs to be accurate and without romanticization which I’ve noticed is often the case.
    Anyways, I look forward to more of your posts in the future… Happy Reading! 🙂

    • Hello Delphine!
      Thank you very much for the kind words. I’ve heard fantastic things about Eliza & Her Monsters, so I’m very keen to give Zappia’s work another go.
      It’s really unfortunate that mental illnesses are always so romanticize, and really damaging too. I hope we will see better books with better mental illness representation in the future.
      Thank you so much!

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