Emily Austin’s 2021 novel highlights relatable anxieties

Courtesy of Atria Books.

Emily Austin’s “Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead” is a novel about a woman who cannot stop going to the emergency room. We first meet Gilda, our protagonist, in the hospital where we find out she’s been in a car accident. We soon learn, however,that the staff already know her well because she suffers from extreme anxiety about her health,regularly seeking medical help to confirm that she isn’t dying. Simultaneously, Gilda is looking for a new job, and she soon accidentally finds one as the receptionist at a Catholic church, despite being an atheist. The result is both a comedy of errors and a heartfelt portrayal of mental illness. In addition to faking Catholicism, Gilda has to pretend to be straight, even though she’s just started dating a woman. When she discovers that the woman she’s replacing at the church recently died under confusing circumstances, Gilda tries to piece together the mystery of the former receptionist’s death, all while battling the fear of her own mortality.

Gilda’s  struggles with communication and connection are alternately deeply relatable, crushingly sad and utterly hilarious. She tries to help and support her younger brother, who struggles with alcoholism, and oftentimes ultimately fails. She has to figure out how to communicate with her new girlfriend, who doesn’t know the truth about her new job. And she has to interact with a priest on a daily basis without revealing her true lack of a religious identity. Gilda’s relationships with other characters provide both hopeful solace and another source of anxiety as she navigates adult life—everyone in her life alternately provides a welcome distraction from her thoughts and another thing to worry about. As the story progresses, she settles into a professional routine, though her family members and her girlfriend are harder to connect with than her clueless boss Father Jeff or her incredibly annoying but predictable coworker Barney. In an unfortunate but incredibly funny plotline that I both appreciated and cringed at, Gilda takes the ruse of her presumed heterosexuality so far that she ends up letting a parishioner set her up with a man. Coming up with excuses to postpone going on a date with him while still trying to sound agreeable becomes yet another part of Gilda’s everyday routine.

While I really enjoyed the conclusion of the story, I couldn’t help but feel that the end was rushed. Without  giving too much away, I was happy with how the pieces of Gilda’s life came together, but I wanted more of the story devoted to how the conclusion was achieved. Throughout the book’s first-person narrative, Gilda jumps from short scene to short scene, taking her time to make each point through a series of flashbacks, musings and detailed descriptions of the present. Towards the end, the pace of the narrative accelerates so much it’s almost unsatisfying, but my appreciation of the book’s resolution made up for it.

The way this book portrays mental illness was one of its greatest strengths—Austin doesn’t shy away from the frustrating realities of a condition like Gilda’s. Gilda’s anxiety permeates every aspect of her life in a way that is uncomfortable and difficult but, in my opinion, very realistic. She understands that she is unwell and that her behaviors point to a larger issue, but doesn’t feel able to do anything about it until it becomes necessary. It’s possible that I enjoyed this book because I’m the target audience as a fellow lesbian atheist who is always convinced she’s going to get a terrible disease for no good reason. However, I think that the story is more universal than the specifics of the plot—really, it’s about navigating adult life when you don’t feel like an adult yet. Gilda considers, “I wonder if everyone’s an impostor. What if beneath every lawyer’s suit and every stay-at-home-parent’s apron, everyone is just a baby who doesn’t know what they’re doing?” Really, this book is for anyone who’s felt the same way, and wants to know that they’re not alone.

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