Miranda Fitch, the protagonist of Mona Awad’s third novel, All’s Well, might best be described—to borrow the title of the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar film—as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A professor of theater studies at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she’s laboring mightily to stage a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which she thinks of as a “problem play,” one that’s “neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Both, always both.”
Apart from a rebellious cast, Miranda’s primary obstacle is unremitting pain from an injury she sustained when she tumbled from a stage during her promising but brief acting career. The resulting hip injury led to serious back problems unrelieved by the ministrations of a string of doctors and physical therapists, transforming Miranda, divorced and not yet 40 years old, into a pill-gobbling automaton who has abandoned all hope of her own happy ending.
All’s Well quickly leaves behind this depressingly naturalistic scenario to veer into the realm of fabulism when Miranda encounters three mysterious men in a local pub. The trio, who inexplicably have intimate knowledge of her life and struggles, grace her with what seems like a miracle cure. But as she discovers, even healing can come at a price.
Awad efficiently portrays both Miranda’s confrontation with chronic pain and the slowly evaporating patience of the people in her orbit (her ex-husband, Paul; colleague and friend Grace; and Mark, the last in a chain of physical therapists) with her lack of improvement. Anyone who’s been similarly afflicted or knows someone who has will recognize this scenario. Awad leaves it to the reader to assess how much of Miranda’s mental turmoil is the product of an inexplicable but desperately welcome truce in her battle with pain, and how much flows from her encounter with supernatural forces. It’s a wild, at times over-the-top ride, but like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s both pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed.