Far From You is a noir murder mystery. It’s a bisexual coming-of-age love triangle. It’s a portrait of an adolescent girl coming to terms with a permanent physical disability resulting from a car crash. It’s a story about friendship and belonging in a conservative rural California town. It’s a story about addiction and recovery. It’s a compassionately told family drama. It’s all of these things overlapping simultaneously. As readers we are drawn into the complex onrush, and guided by Tess Sharpe’s unflinching hand.
Growing up with a physical disability that required multiple surgeries, the insertion of metal spare parts where wrecked bone used to be, and the use of an ever-changing armory of mobility aides, I felt a strong connection to Sophie, Sharpe’s bold heroine. Despite the different underlying causes of our disabilities—Sophie is in a car crash at the age of 14, whereas I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at 18 months—Sophie’s coping mechanisms and emotional outlook surrounding her disability rang true to my lived experience. Perhaps even more of a selling point for the novel is the rich and complex way that Sharpe paints Sophie as a complex young person who is uncovering multiple facets of her identity. Sophie does this as it happens for so many adolescents: chaotically, and all at once.
As a person who has spent more than her fair share of time searching for nuanced disabled characters in both fiction and nonfiction, this messy portrayal is the greatest strength in a novel that includes many features to recommend it. Too often, disability is portrayed in a void, put up for view as a curated exhibition for curious onlookers, rather than being fully rendered as what it is: just another way to travel through life.
They change depending on her mood, the circumstances that she finds herself in, and her attitude evolves throughout the novel based on the length of time since the accident. Most importantly, the focus on her disability fades in and out depending on its importance in a given situation. When she is fleeing for her life in the middle of the night, she is more aware of her limitations than when she is at a party with friends. This seems like a silly detail to point out, but I have read far too many books with disabled characters in which the writer fails to make this shift of focus. The world is awash with disability narratives where the disability is described so fiercely that all other aspects of the character are drowned out. Sharpe uses great restraint in allowing Sophie the space to breathe as a fully realized character without ignoring, or miraculously healing, her disability.
Sophie’s sexuality, in a world that too often demands asexuality of people with disabilities, is complicated. She is in love with Mina, her best friend, and a little bit in love with Trev, her best friends’ brother. Furthermore, she—in very tasteful scenes—actually has sex. Sex that—at least with Mina—starts off with her disabled leg twisting uncomfortably, but very quickly resolves into a sensitive scene about a pair of young people in love.
Far From You is not perfect. From the perspective of a writer and a lover of mysteries, Sophie’s addiction to Oxycontin felt organic, was perfectly placed, crucial for her development as a character, and necessary to the plot of the novel. From the perspective of a person with a disability that has on more than one occasion required the use of narcotics for pain management, her addiction was problematic. Unfortunately, this addiction reinforces the cultural bias that to use narcotics for the treatment of pain—as prescribed by a doctor—is to open yourself up to the slippery slope to addiction. This is not the case. Unfortunately this belief is so ingrained in our society that it has stigmatized pain management practices. Due either to their doctors’ bias against prescribing meds, family biases, or, in many cases their own internalized bias against using the meds that they are given, people with disabilities similar to Sophie’s are forced to suffer needlessly. There simply aren’t enough portrayals of people with disabilities (yet) for Far From You to be viewed as a stand-alone novel about specific characters. It will be seen as representing people with disabilities more broadly, and as such, the addiction reinforces a troubling stereotype.
In Far From You we meet a tenacious but flawed heroine, doing her best in a series of very difficult circumstances. Her disability is an extension of Sophie the individual, never a metaphor. Never a tool of emotional manipulation. This natural portrayal of disability is achieved through Sophie’s own reactions to her body. Sharpe furthers this realism in her depictions of the other characters’ varied relationships to Sophie’s disability. Her mother’s relentless drive to save her, Trev’s need to make everything better, and Mina’s pragmatic approach, all subtly color the fluid reality of life with a disability.