First, Meghan O’Rourke bares her soul about chronic illness in her 2022 book, The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness. And second, she analyzes how US medical care fails patients with difficult to diagnose chronic illnesses. This is two parts heartstring-pulling pain and philosophical pondering, combined with two parts anger and frustration. There’s some hopefulness added in the manner of icing on the cake, but it’s quite tentative. All in all, if a chronic illness has touched you or those you love, this book is a must-read.

Like many books about these topics, O’Rourke draws heavily from her own personal experience. As a young, active thirty-something, she started having a complex array of random aches, pain, and other symptoms. Soon she was spending all her money and time pursuing a diagnosis with treatment options. After years of this, she found a possible solution. But as with so many medical memoirs, her path forward wasn’t entirely clear.

During this time, O’Rourke tries to write poems, articles, and other work. She teaches part-time in New York City and other locations. But fundamentally, she’s a patient in search of a cure. Because of her writing background, she researches her symptoms and how other writers discuss illness. Many aspects of chronic illness coalesce here into a complex, but readable whole.

My conclusions

As a reader with chronic illness, this book introduced me to many writers I didn’t know. And also name-checked many I’ve already read, like Donna Jackson Nakazawa and Maya Dusenberry. The only gap I saw in O’Rourke’s consideration of the topic is not mentioning Toni Bernhard’s excellent books—How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Bernhard’s experience and her perspective are an interesting pair to the work O’Rourke does in The Invisible Kingdom.

My favorite parts of this book are when O’Rourke explains what it’s like to be a long-term, never quite fully diagnosed patient. She describes the fears, fights, loneliness, and sometimes moments of hope. The honesty of these moments, coupled with her unique talent for an explanation, helps explain the unexplainable. At our sickest, patients with undiagnosed or chronic illnesses search for the right words. If you need some help, try O’Rourke’s descriptions. They might help your family and friends understand the difficult emotions and realities.

The Invisible Kingdom is excellent, well-structured, and balances personal experience with research. I definitely recommend it.