Review: The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati book review header

Published: October 11th, 2016 by Delacourte Press | Series: N/A | Length: 387 pages | Genre: YA, contemporary, mental health | Source: Borrowed from library | Triggers: bipolar disorder, depression, suicide (overdose), OCD, alcoholism, bulimia/eating disorders, death, bullying

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Summary from Goodreads:

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disorder, almost triumphed once; that was her first suicide attempt. 

Being bipolar is forever. It never goes away. The med du jour might work right now, but Zero will be back for her. It’s only a matter of time.

And so, in an old ballet-shoe box, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its living death on her again. Before she goes, though, she starts a short bucket list. 

The bucket list, the support of her family, new friends, and a new course of treatment all begin to lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. The problem is, her plan is already in place, and has been for so long that she might not be able to see a future beyond it. 

This is a story of loss and grief and hope, and how some of the many shapes of love—maternal, romantic, and platonic—affect a young woman’s struggle with mental illness and the stigma of treatment.

This was a ridiculously good book. It took me a couple of chapters to get into it, but once I was in, I was in. I read about 300 pages in two days which is not something I often do, but this story was just so captivating. It still had a few problems, but overall was a wonderful book.

The first problem I had with the book was that in the beginning, there were some really abrupt shifts between topics and scenes that were kind of jarring and really disrupted the flow of the story. Luckily this only happened once or twice and the rest of the book flowed really well. There was one part where it was really bad, when Catherine was explaining her experience reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower (loved that this book was mentioned, by the way, since it’s one of my favorites) and she started talking about it and then the chapter just ended and the next chapter picked up exactly where the last one had stopped, continuing the discussion of Perks. I really couldn’t understand why there was a chapter break there; it just really didn’t make sense to me and seemed completely unnecessary.

There were also a couple of offensive terms used in the book like hermaphrodite (it’d be better to use the term intersex) and, rather surprisingly, psycho. This last one really confused me because many times throughout the book, the term (and similar terms, like crazy) is used to show how offensive and hurtful it is to Catherine, but then it was also used (at least once that I can remember) and went completely unacknowledged as offensive. There was a part where Michael was showing Catherine something and asked her if it was “completely psycho” for him to have it and, even though Michael had shown sensitivity to terms like that previously in the book (for example, when his mom calls his grandmother crazy in front of Catherine) and even though Catherine had shown in the narration that those kinds of terms were upsetting to her, in this case, NOTHING was said. Not in the narration, not in actual dialogue, not at all. It was really perplexing to me because clearly, the author was aware that these terms can be hurtful to people struggling with mental illnesses, but she still used it and there was no in-text acknowledgment of it being an ableist and offensive term.

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Other than those two issues, I really had no other problems and totally loved the book. Despite the use of the term “psycho,” it generally did a great job of showing mental illnesses and although Catherine is bipolar, we see a lot of different mental illnesses represented and portrayed pretty accurately (from at least what I can tell; without personal experience with these illnesses, I can’t say with certainty, but it seemed pretty accurate based on my knowledge of the subjects). Catherine is part of an intensive outpatient program and participates in group therapy with several other kids her age who struggle with bulimia and OCD and I think depression as well (not everyone’s diagnosis is explicitly stated). There were a couple of things discussed numerous times in Catherine’s narration that were really accurate depictions of what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues and I was so happy that they were included. Catherine talks about the guilt she feels for placing a “burden” on her mom and also talks about how she struggles to tell what aspects of her behavior, thoughts, experiences, etc. were due to her being bipolar and what aspects were just her personality and a part of being a teenager in high school. I loved both of these because I know guilt is a big issue for a lot of people with any kind of disability whether it be mental illness, chronic illness, physical disability, etc. and I have personal experience with the latter – not being able to tell how much of what I do is because of my anxiety and how much is “normal” behavior. I absolutely loved that these were prominent themes in the book.

Another thing I really liked was that even though the main character is white, Fortunati still managed to touch upon race, partially through Catherine’s friendship with Kristal (side note: I loved seeing a great female friendship in this book!) and partially through her history project where she’s writing a biography on a black woman who served in WWII. I wouldn’t necessarily say that race was a big part of the book, but I really appreciated that it wasn’t ignored.

This review is absurdly long, but I have to mention how great the relationship between Catherine and Michael was (this part might be a little spoilery). Not only are they both supportive and accepting of each other, but Michael consistently asked for consent from Catherine whenever they were doing anything romantic/sexual and I LOVED IT. This is super rare in YA books, but it is so necessary to normalize consent, especially for young people. Whenever they were kissing, Michael would make sure Catherine was comfortable with it, explicitly asking “can I kiss you?” or “is this okay?” or something like that. Fortunati gets a big thumbs up from me for that. I also liked that although Michael helps Catherine see that she can be bipolar and still experience happiness and live a good life, he’s not at all a “cure” for her bipolar disorder.

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I’m sorry this review was so long, but I had a lot of things about this book that I felt were important and wanted to talk about. As I mentioned, there were a couple of problems with the book, but overall this was a fantastic portrayal of mental illness and what it’s like to struggle with mental illness on top of “normal” teenage experiences. If you’re looking for a bipolar main character, The Weight of Zero is a great choice.

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15 thoughts on “Review: The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

  1. Very interesting! You learn a lot about the specific illness reading a book like this. I found it interesting that people with bio polar feel guilt about their condition. Very different from high functioning autism where suffers seem oblivious of the impact they have on those around them. Worth a read I think.


    • There’s obviously a lot of differences between how individuals experience the same mental illness, but it’s actually quite common for people struggling with mental illnesses to feel guilty, especially kids/teens who feel their illness is an extra “burden” on their parents. This book gave great insight into that.


  2. This review really made me want to read the book! I have seen this book around on Goodreads, a few people added it and I’m glad to hear the representation is accurate and respectful. I’m always scared when it comes to mental health books because sometimes they are executed so poorly, but I always love to find a good book about it. Thanks for the review!


    • Yay, I’m so glad to hear that! 🙂 I don’t have personal experience with bipolar disorder so I can’t with 100% certainty say it was accurate, but there was still a lot that, as a depressed person, I could relate to and I thought a lot of the stuff related to the depressive episodes of the MC’s bipolar was really accurate. And I didn’t notice any big, glaring issues with anything else. I hope you enjoy this if/when you decide to read it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this review! I think you did a great job of respectfully addressing the issues in this book. I know a lot of people find it uncomfortable to point out that kind of thing but I think it’s really important. I’ve just added this book to my TBR thanks to you! I’m very excited to read it and I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂


    • Thanks so much, Kristen! I always try to make sure I point things out that bothered me or that might bother others because, like you said, I think it’s important to do that. But I also do my best to be respectful because I know it takes a lot of work writing a book. 🙂 I’m glad to hear you added it to your TBR – I hope you love it as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love how thorough this review is, Kourtni! All the problems aside it definitely seems like a fantastic read. I love how it covered a lot about mental illness and a wide range of it too. Also, I get exactly what you mean about anxiety and wondering how much you do because of it and then how much is actually normal. I love that this addressed that in terms of mental illness. I’m definitely adding this to my TBR. Great review as always! 💕😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: 10 Book Recommendations for People Who Want to Diversify Their Reading | Kourtni Reads

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