A Tiny Piece of Something Greater: A Review
Content warning, as provided by the author (this is an #ownvoices story): Discussion of mental illness, therapy and recovery; A portrayal of a cyclothymic character who experiences rapid mood cycles and anxiety; Non-graphic discussion of past self-harm and off-page relapse; Non-graphic reference of a past suicide attempt. (Addition: in the last chapter, Joaquim kisses Reid’s self-harm scars. It made me personally uncomfortable but everyone’s mileage may vary.)
I’ve been having a hard time trying to come up with the words to talk about A Tiny Piece of Something Greater. While I don’t share Reid’s specific mental illness, there’s a lot about his behavior, his thoughts, and his attitude toward it that resonated with my own experience, and which forced me to confront aspects of myself and emotions I would rather not investigate too closely.
Reid leaves behind his family, his support system (therapist and therapy group), an ex-boyfriend with whom he has an unhealthy codependency, and the place he is supposed to call home because of how it made him feel too tight in his own skin. There, with the people who’ve known him for so long and who have witnessed all his “disasters,” he doesn’t feel like he is much more than his mental illness. He’s encumbered by what all those people know about him, by what they can’t seem to see past. To free himself, he drives from Wisconsin to Florida. There he meets Joaquim who, conversely, “young and unencumbered,” left his own home in search of adventure. Their relationship is immediately flirty; two young men in their early twenties who are instantly attracted to each other and who want to explore their budding feelings.
A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is part romance, part coming of age, part recovery story, and while Sierra writes with a light touch (but not lightheartedly, and with turns of phrase that emphasize her poetry roots), and avoids most of the common traps and pitfalls of similar narratives, she takes her time digging into the nasty bits of living with a mental illness—the medications, the therapy, the good days and the bad ones, the managing and the relapses; really, the prosaicness of it all—and loving someone who does. How exhausting, unfair, angering, and at times downright impossible it is to go through one’s daily life, to be around people, to open oneself up to new relationships.
Such a focus might alienate readers who have no experience of mental illness; it may seem as if Reid’s mental illness is all his characterization and personality amount to. Reid is not his cyclothymia, but the reality of it is that a mental illness can, and does, feel all-encompassing; it touches every moment of one’s life, it makes every relationship harder to navigate; it sinks its teeth into a person, and even when one’s feeling “better,” the marks of those teeth are still (always) there.
Read is much more than his mental illness, of course. But it is intrinsic to who he is. Initially he’s drawn to Joaquim’s calmness, to his kindness, to his newness; Reid too can be someone new around Joaquim, at least for a little while. It takes him a long time to reveal the secret layers of himself to Joaquim, because once all the sandpapery truth of him is out he will no longer be able to be someone new, someone unencumbered.
What I loved about all the quietly enormous moments of honesty is that Sierra—and this is a great example of why it matters when an author shares part of their characters’s identity—lets them transpire at Reid’s own pace. There’s no climactic event, nothing that happens to force Reid to tell Joaquim about himself. And Joaquim receives all Reid is willing to give him. He doesn’t understand it, not initially, never completely, but he wants to. If and when Reid will want him to.
A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is not a horror or suspense novel, but at every bit of revealed truth I was clutching my e-reader as one would the armrests of a movie theater chair during a scary film. When Joaquim tells Reid that he wants to know, that he’s learning, Reid asks him, “But is this too one-sided for you? […] I’m always an issue.” (Joaquim will, of course, reply that he’s not, that no one knows “how to balance a teeter-totter right away. You gotta learn that shit.”)
I love and hate to see my own toxic, fearful thoughts in the pages of a book. There’s that single moment of dissonance; of hating the fact that other people know what it’s like, and yet selfishly being grateful that someone does, that I’m not the only one.
So though this novel is a bit one-sided, too—far from perfect, a bit too scattered in places, and with Joaquim a bit too lightly developed—it did give me that something I’m not very used to receive: the reminder that I, too, am not an issue.
Relationships are hard work, a constant, continuous balancing act regardless of one’s mental health, and with the full knowledge that a mental illness can’t be cured (we only ever get the hang of it; we cope), Reid and Joaquim’s relationship never stops feeling fragile. It’s a brittle, delicate thing.
But between them there is this openness, this generosity, a willingness to share and learn together, to hold on to one another and what they have, that their ending, if not a sure happily ever after, is a hopeful, tomorrow, too, let’s try our best with each other.