In Alexandra Tanner’s ‘Worry,’ Illness Is the Status Quo

When Jules Gold, the protagonist of Alexandra Tanner’s debut novel Worry, comes home to find her younger sister Poppy lying naked on the couch, covered in ice packs and crying, she knows exactly what’s going on.

The reader might be baffled, but Jules understands immediately that Poppy is suffering an outbreak of full-body hives, a chronic condition that has plagued her since childhood. She doesn’t need Poppy to explain her medication dosages or the drastic side effects of the new steroids her doctor has prescribed, and she doesn’t need to be told what to do: call in sick from work, make white bean soup, binge-watch Sailor Moon, and reassure Poppy that at least the hives haven’t made it to her face. (Spoiler: They will eventually come for her face.)

These gestures might seem pretty standard—the kind of care we expect women to provide any hives-stricken person in their orbit, and at which sisters especially are supposed to excel. But until this point in the novel, nothing so suggestive of domestic harmony as a white bean soup has appeared in the Brooklyn apartment Jules and Poppy reluctantly share. The sisters are far less likely to cook for each other than to argue. They argue about who would make a worse mother; they argue about whether Jules’s job as a copywriter for a bogus astrology app is a smart career move or a colossal waste of time; they argue, most recently, about the merits of adopting a traumatized rescue dog named Amy Klobuchar. Jules’s unusually tender behavior in this moment is prompted only by Poppy’s dire state, and that’s no accident: in a novel where sisterhood entails constant conflict, illness provides an unexpected emotional salve.

Set in 2019 and based in part on Tanner’s own experience sharing a studio with her sibling, Worry opens when Poppy arrives in Brooklyn—“dressed ugly and covered in hives”—and announces her intention to crash with Jules for an indefinite period of time. The sisters are products of an uber-bougie Miami milieu for which the novel periodically pauses to apologize, a tic that is less interesting than its exploration of the idiosyncrasies that accompany their upbringing. (Jules gets regular lip filler and Botox injections from her dermatologist father.) 

Despite their many advantages, neither woman is exactly forging ahead in adult life—nor are they very good at behaving as sisters “should.” By turns clingy and callous, they’re united by a propensity for saying the wrong thing and a lack of “boundaries,” as Poppy, a devotee of online therapy-speak, frequently points out. Even when they’re not literally pulling out each other’s hair, their gifts to each other—a ruinously expensive mattress Jules orders so Poppy can stop sleeping on the floor, a line drawing of their apartment building Poppy gifts her sister for Hanukkah—fall flat, inspiring cycles of guilt and recrimination rather than closeness.

Tanner contrasts that fractious relationship with the aggressively harmonious family lives of the Christian mom bloggers, or “mommies,” who serve as the novel’s Greek chorus. Jules spends hours perusing the mommies’ curated lives on Instagram, ostensibly for the purpose of writing an essay that will launch her career as a writer (Tanner really did publish such an essay) but really out of listless voyeurism. While Jules and Poppy often find it hard to be in the same room, the mommies post things like “I always want to make out with my baby boy!!!!! Is that weird?” Even if Jules doesn’t actually want to be a mommy—she prefers engaging them in comment section skirmishes over their not-so-veiled antisemitism—their feeds epitomize the Hallmark norms of nurturing, selfless womanhood to which the two sisters are manifestly not conforming.

In moments of illness, however, everything changes. When Poppy’s hives periodically flare, Jules is at the ready with bracing comments. (“At least they’re not on your vulva.”) When Jules’s debilitating food anxiety results in paralysis over a restaurant menu, Poppy knows what foods are safe to order—and she’s brave enough to tell Jules that her fears constitute an eating disorder for which she should probably seek treatment. Does she do this kindly, or tactfully? Of course not. But the traits that cause chaos in times of health—the sisters’ intimate knowledge of each other’s weaknesses, their total disregard of privacy, the delight they take in voicing unpleasant truths—also enable them to provide the kind of care that no one else in their lives can or will.

In a culture increasingly preoccupied with “wellness,” illness is often depicted as a force that threatens a previously happy, or at least functional, status quo. Tanner gestures at this mindset through the mommies, who guard their children against illnesses (some real, some the product of conspiracy theories) through a combination of Berkey water filters and essential oils. For them, constant vigilance against red food dye and demonic Oreos is a way of enforcing the notion that, if protected from external threats, their families really are as picture perfect as they appear on Instagram.

Worry asks how we might change our perception of illness’s role in intimate relationships if we acknowledge that for many families, illness is the status quo. When Jules and Poppy’s frictionless siblinghood isn’t taken for granted, it’s easy to see how illness narrows the demands of sisterhood. In times of crisis, instead of berating themselves for failing to meet expectations, Jules and Poppy can do tangible things to help each other get through the day. And instead of demarcating the limits of their ability to help each other, those small moments of competence and compassion hold their relationship together through the worst of fights they pick in times of health.

While Jules and Poppy live in blissful ignorance of Covid, Worry often reads like a pandemic novel, illuminating the personal and communal choices illness forces upon us. Already contemptuous of the government and fearful of the public water supply, the mommies choose to believe that sickness comes from contact with the wrong people and institutions, and can therefore be overcome by an increasingly isolated lifestyle. They might not know it, but they’re preparing to retreat even further into their tract mansions, away from the doctors, schools, and vaccines that might expose their children to ubiquitous “toxins.” For the sisters, who experience illness as an essential condition of life, the knowledge that they can’t handle their various maladies alone compels them to view their relationship—and the social ties that radiate outwards from their small family unit—as a source of support, not a burden.

That discovery doesn’t usher the sisters into some utopian state: Poppy’s hives persist undiagnosed, and Jules remains lethargic and under-employed into the very last page. But they do start to see the possibility of a life sustained by care, and not just in moments of crisis. When Poppy inevitably brings Amy Klobuchar home from the shelter, Jules is furious—until the dog’s frantic barking turns into a kind of manifesto. “Soon you will stoop to pick up my shit and tell yourself it’s just candy,” Amy Klobuchar seems to say. “When we come inside you will wipe my paws and you will give me a treat, and your life will be richer, and I will be the reason.”

On this front, at least, Amy Klobuchar is absolutely right.

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