From the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Left Neglected, comes a heartfelt novel about an accidental friendship that gives a grieving mother a priceless gift: the ability to understand the thoughts of her eight-year-old autistic son and make sense of his brief life. Two women, each cast adrift by unforseen events in their lives, meet by accident on a Nantucket beach and are drawn into a friendship.
Olivia is a young mother whose eight-year-old severely autistic son has recently died. Her marriage badly frayed by years of stress, she comes to the island in a trial separation to try and make sense of the tragedy of her Anthony’s short life. Beth, a stay-at-home mother of three, is also recently separated after discovering her husband’s long-term infidelity. In an attempt to recapture a sense of her pre-married life, she rekindles her passion for writing, determined to find her own voice again. But surprisingly, as she does so, Beth also find herself channeling the voice of an unknown boy, exuberant in his perceptions of the world around him if autistic in his expression—a voice she can share with Olivia—(is it Anthony?)—that brings comfort and meaning to them both.
In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to Olivia, who is vacationing on the island of Nantucket with her autistic son, Anthony. One nice summer day, Anthony plays on the beach by himself as his mother looks on. Just a bit down the beach is a group of little girls being watched by their mother, Beth. Beth notices the boy and asks one of her daughters to invite him to play but Anthony seems to decline the offer. It's in these early pages that the reader is given specifics on Anthony's autism -- he is mostly non-verbal in his communication, he doesn't like to be touched and he makes little to no eye contact when someone addresses him. He's fascinated by rocks smoothed by the sea so his parents take to collecting them for him.
Fast forward the story almost ten years: Anthony has passed away and his parents are separated. Olivia is now living on the island pursuing work in photography as she continues to mourn the loss of her son. She rediscovers journals she kept while Anthony was alive and they prove to be quite insightful, giving her some much needed perspective regarding those years. The reader gets a window into the life of a mother of an autistic child -- the fears, frustrations, hopes, joys. Olivia also writes honestly of how her son's condition put a certain amount of strain on her marriage.
Beth (the mother of the little girls at the beginning of the story) is also still on the island and has recently discovered her husband has been having an affair. Similar to Olivia finding old journals, Beth finds a box of old mementos and papers, reminding her of a lost passion for writing. It dawns on Beth that somewhere along the way of being a wife and mother, she lost her identity as an individual. Beth feels her passion for writing reignited, finding strength in the craft as she struggles to retain footing in her marriage after her husband's infidelity. Beth remembers the little boy she saw on the beach so many years ago and finds herself inspired to write a novel from the perspective of the mind of a non-verbal autistic child. Life finds a way to bring Beth and Olivia back into each other's lives and through Beth's novel Olivia finds answers to questions she's desperately wanted answered for years.
I've been hearing Genova's name thrown around for a few years now, what with the popularity of her book Still Alice (inspired by her grandmother's struggle with Alzheimer's) and most recently Inside The O'Briens, which tackles the topic of Huntington's Disease. Genova has a PhD in neuroscience, and from what I've read in interviews of her writing process, I gather that an insane amount of research goes into every medically themed novel she writes (Love Anthony was inspired by an autistic cousin of Genova's), but if I'm being honest I was a little underwhelmed with this particular novel of hers.
The plot was dragged out a little more than I'd like. Beth and Olivia flitter around each other, almost meeting, for about 165 pages or so until any formal introduction is made. That's a bit of a commitment to ask of the reader before a writer will get to the meat of the story. Also problematic for me was the fact that I just wasn't finding the bulk of the story all that interesting. I picked this up mainly for the autism element, but I felt waaay too much of the plot was focused on Beth's marital struggles after her husband's affair. I went in for medical drama / literary fiction, got stuck with chick lit -- and not even amazing chick lit! This felt like Lifetime or Hallmark channel chick lit targeted at easy criers. If I sound harsh, sorry not sorry. Divorce melodrama is not my thing and soap opera slipped under the guise of medical fiction (one of my favorite genres) irks the hell outta me.
I DID like the excerpts of Beth's novel. That's more like what I was expecting for the rest of the novel. I especially liked the description of Always Rules vs. Depends Rules. I myself have a cousin with non-verbal autism and this portion of the novel did ring true to my own experiences with my cousin.
Always Rules are perfect because they always follow something called cause and effect, and this makes me calm and happy. I used to think light switches were an Always Rule. If I flipped the switch up, the light turned on. If I flipped the switch down, the light turned off. Over and over and over. Always.
Until light switches turned into a Depends Rule. Last winter a big storm came, and the power went out, and I flipped all the light switches in the whole house up and down and up and down and nothing happened. The lights stayed off....Light switches depend on the weather...
Things that are Depends Rules are bad because they can't be trusted. I can't know for sure what is going to happen next ... which means that ANYTHING can happen next, and anything is too much. I end up wandering the halls in my brain, not knowing what room to go in, scared and confused. I usually end up hiding in the corner of the horror room if I'm dealing with a Depends Rule...
Always makes me feel good. Always makes me feel safe.
That whole mysterious, mystical thing it seemed like Genova was going for at the end didn't quite click for me. I didn't feel like the rest of the plot was developed in the right way for that element to be incorporated to where it would make perfect sense.
This was the first of Genova's books I've read and I've seen a number of reviewers say that Still Alice and Left Neglected definitely ranked higher for them than this one, so I won't write Genova's books off as "not my thing" just yet. I'm hoping this means that maybe I just got her weakest work out of the way and that the writing will only get better from here.