Review: One Way or Another by Kara McDowell

December 19, 2020

Cover of One Way or Another, with a girl stuck inside a snow globe, with the upside-down outline of New York City above her, and the outline of pine trees below her.

Note: This review contains minor spoilers (third and fourth paragraphs) for the purpose of critiquing disability portrayal.

I’ve read quite a few romance novels with heroines who are clumsy, awkward, or odd. I’ve often wondered if they could be neurodivergent. But when I think of romance heroines in general, I still imagine someone who is confident and dedicated to attaining what they desire, even if they’re sometimes wrong about what that is. Which is why the young adult holiday romance One Way or Another by Kara McDowell offers such a refreshing and validating twist on this archetype: it has a heroine with anxiety, who struggles in particular with making decisions.

Paige is a high school senior who has anxiety and panic attacks. When her best friend and crush, Fitz, asks her to spend Christmas with him at the same time her mother surprises her with a trip to New York, her anxiety forces her to use a Magic 8 Ball app to make her decision. After using the app and subsequently slipping and falling, Paige’s story splits into two fates, or parallel universes: one where she goes with Fitz to his family’s cabin, and one where she goes to New York. In both universes, Paige has some of her first experiences with romance, but she doesn’t feel like a romance heroine. To her, heroines are confident, daring, and adventurous, and she isn’t.

Although there are scenes where people react poorly to Paige’s anxiety, it’s clear that this isn’t her fault, and getting support from loved ones is as important to Paige as accepting that she might have a problem. I wished her anxiety hadn’t been described using words for other kinds of disabilities, particularly paralysis. The ending also felt a little rushed, as Paige accepts and receives effective treatment in the last few pages of the book, although I don’t think this is a bad choice for a romance with a happy ending. Besides those few points, the portrayal of anxiety was excellent.

Unlike many other young adult books with mentally ill characters, Paige isn’t on an unavoidable path to self-destruction, she’s not a burden on her loved ones, and her anxiety isn’t romanticized, treated like a tragedy, or used as a quirk or a character flaw. It’s a messy, complex part of her story and who she is. She has a hard time seeing her anxiety as something that needs treatment because of the myths about mental illness she’s internalized: that having an anxiety disorder makes you “broken,” that anxiety always comes with depression, and that only very severe anxiety needs treatment. Although she doesn’t overcome these beliefs completely, she makes progress, which is, in my opinion, a more realistic and important story than the narrative of “overcoming” either anxiety or stigma.

One Way or Another is a sweet romance, and a nuanced anxiety portrayal. Paige’s coping mechanisms, including baking, dreaming about being a travel writer, and the grounding techniques she does with Fitz, show a lighter side to everyday life with anxiety. I’ve even started using one of her techniques myself, finding the colors of the rainbow in my surroundings to slow my thoughts. One Way or Another is also a perfect Christmas read, and a book I’d recommend for any teen or adult with anxiety who needs to feel represented in a romance with a comforting ending.

Content Warning for One Way or Another by Kara McDowell: Panic attacks and anxiety, ableist language (frequently in the form of internalized ableism), multiple descriptions of food, sudden physical injury (including bleeding, and a car accident), hospitalization for physical injury, a severe snowstorm that causes a power outage, a character develops mild hypothermia.

Here are some places and formats One Way or Another is available in as of December 19, 2020. (I am not a part of any affiliate programs and do not receive compensation for links, clicks, or purchases, unless otherwise stated.)

Bookshop has hardcover and audiobook editions. (I am an affiliate of Bookshop. Buying from this Bookshop link will help support both the work I do on this website and independent bookstores).

Barnes & Noble (US) has hardcover and Nook ebook editions.

Amazon has hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and Kindle ebook editions.

Indigo (CA) has hardcover and Kobo ebook editions.

Indiebound (US) can give you a list of independent bookstores near you where this book might be available.

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