There is no Antidote for Everything
The main thing to know about Kimmery Martin’s second novel is its genre. It is women’s fiction, released by Berkley, a gold-standard mainstream press for books read and written primarily by women. This means the book is likely to have emotionally wrenching situations and a happy ending. The book may tackle political or social issues, but it will do so in an unthreatening way, and the resolutions to those issues will be simple, pleasing, and complete. These sentences are not meant to disparage mainstream women’s fiction, but to acknowledge that the genre has certain patterns and tendencies, and The Antidote for Everything adheres to them extremely well. For many readers, such adherence is an advantage. As with mystery novels, the pattern of a mainstream women’s fiction novel is a vehicle for a specific kind of reading enjoyment—a space for developing sympathetic characters and delineating the struggles with which middle-class women resonate. However, for this reviewer, and in the specific example of this book, the ease with which The Antidote for Everything surrenders to these patterns is a disappointment.
Georgia Brown, a straight white female urologist in her mid-thirties living in South Carolina, has a problem. Her best friend, Jonah, a gay family practice doctor, is about to be fired from the clinic where they both work. The clinic has been dismissing Jonah’s transgender and LGBTQ+ patients via letters in the mail without Jonah’s approval, and now they’re planning to dismiss him as well. Their cover is the “moral code” of the clinic’s founders, which in South Carolina allows companies and people to discriminate for “religious” reasons in hiring, firing, and even making wedding cakes. Georgia gets tangled up in the situation because of her love for Jonah, who is more like a brother or a life partner than a friend, and because of an ugly secret she carries related to one of the clinic’s board members. Meanwhile, she pursues a too-good-to-be-true romance with Mark, a wealthy financier whose life she saves on a flight to Amsterdam. From there, the novel’s plot twists and turns multiple times, revealing secrets and barely allowing the characters to evade disaster. Jonah and Georgia both make terrible mistakes and pay for them dearly, but everything comes out all right in the end.
In The Antidote for Everything, Kimmery Martin creates an opportunity to speak about the outrage of denying medical treatment to trans patients, pro-discrimination “religious freedom” laws in some American states, and the burdens that come with identity, even in the year 2020. However, she touches on these issues, uses them to power her plot, and then drops them before they become too heavy or ambiguous. “I’m not sure how much I want to fight for the prize of going back to a place that scorns my people,” Jonah says of the clinic that fired him for being gay. “But I’m here,” Georgia responds. This level of tone-deafness is to be expected from a straight white woman shielded by a large salary, but instead of pushing in on that moment, forcing Georgia to reckon with her self-absorption and her lack of firsthand experience with the kind of oppression Jonah faces, Martin moves on.
The book offers a little insight into the difficulties of LGBTQ+ life in the American South, but then flits away, leaving realistically depressing discussions of such struggles and consequences to other books, other authors.
This happens several more times—the book offers a little insight into the difficulties of LGBTQ+ life in the American South, but then flits away, leaving realistically depressing discussions of such struggles and consequences to other books, other authors. Ultimately, Martin’s decree, from the mouth of a gay lawyer, is “We’ll get there … Someday, we’ll get there.” Cold comfort.
Further—forgive the spoiler—at the end of the book, Jonah and Georgia decide to move to California, leaving the ugliness of megachurch-sponsored medical clinics behind in South Carolina. I’m sure many folks in Jonah’s shoes have made similar choices. But this is not necessarily the answer, to simply pick up and leave a place where laws are becoming more repressive and people are suffering as a result. As a solution, it amounts to voluntary segregation. The answer might not be to stay and fight a hopeless battle, either, or to remain in a place where one’s life is in danger. But what about the queer teenagers Jonah treated? What about the people whose families can’t relocate as easily as Jonah and Georgia can? How can South Carolinians understand and believe that people like Jonah exist if they’ve all left the state? Moving away, as an all-purpose solution for an oppressive environment, is how regions de-diversify, and eventually how they die.
Perhaps this dissatisfaction is misplaced. Kimmery Martin is not Susan Sontag, and to judge one by the standards of the other does both a disservice. But it seems like Martin wanted to write a novel tackling LGBTQ+ issues without understanding that the experiences of this community do not lend themselves to easy solutions or happy endings. It’s not a romance novel, not a full-on fantasy; women’s fiction is essentially literary realism, and that means Martin has a responsibility to her subject. It’s not a high bar, and I’m not sure she’s cleared it.
“The only thing that matters—the only antidote for discrimination and corruption and every other evil that plagues our society—is integrity. Behaving with honor. Shining a light on the truth. Not gaming the system to suit your … aims.” This is the Big Lesson our heroine learns by the end of the novel. But multiple radical philosophies disagree. Gaming the system sometimes feels like the only way to survive for truly oppressed populations. If Martin understood that, she might understand that there truly is no antidote for everything.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction best seller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.