Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

email: margalitc at yahoo dot com

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Out-of-Synch Mom

I finished reading a novel today, and is often the case, my take on the book was radically different than the blurbs that made me want to read it in the first place. Not that I didn't like the book, quite the contrary in fact. I loved the book. It was beautifully written, had strong and sympathetic characters, an interesting storyline, and was exceedingly witty and compelling. It was, in fact, a brilliant first novel, one that left me begging for more.

The blurbs, however, called it humorous, hilarious, uproariously funny, deadpan, and madcap, none of which I would use to describe this story of the marriage estrangement of two vastly different personalities parenting a six year-old autistic boy in regional North Carolina.

"this is just exactly like you" by Drew Perry (sic) is a sadly touching and quirky tale of a marriage gone wrong between Beth and Jack, acted out to the background of Hendrick, their savant young son. Beth, an English professor at a small college, is wound too tightly for her own good. She is a controlling woman with an overload of fear who can't seem to accept the limitations of her young son . She wants everything in her life to be done correctly and quickly. Not a risk taker nor a easy acceptor, she worries more about posting emergency numbers and poison control information all over her house than she does trying to communicate with her son.

Of all the men at the University of Carolina, Chapel Hill that Beth was exposed to, she ended up with Jack, an ABD in the same program. Jack is a man with visions of what the future might be, but with an inability to finish most of his visions. He sees their small tract home with a breakfast nook, then knocks down a wall where it would be in his vision but is stymied once a problem comes up, and angry Beth is left with a wall of plywood where the nook was supposed to be. This inability to finish what he starts eventually becomes too much for Beth, who takes off for a time out with Jack's best friend Terry after Jack buys the house across the street with plans to fix it up and sell it at a profit.. Terry's marriage has also fallen apart when his wife Rena leaves and moves into her own condo in the city. Hilarious so far?

Hendrick, or Hen as Jack calls him, is a savant that started reading at 2.5 years and had continued reading and memorizing anything he can get his hands on.  Hen likes the Weather Channel and TV commercials, which he has also memorized. While verbal, Hen speaks in commercial and quotes the tree catalog that is his favorite belonging. Hen rarely speaks to people, but he speaks at them citing a commercial as his mode of discourse.

Hen seems to favor Jack, which makes Beth even angrier, but allows her to leave him with Jack when she takes off. This departure, odd as it might sound, is the catalyst for Hen to take off verbally. Jack must take Hen to work with him at Jack's Patriot Mulch & Trees. As Hen settles into this new twist in his life, he begin speaking in fluent Spanish, as learned from Ernesto, one of Jack's employees. Apparently, Hen and Ernesto have become friends as they ride around delivering mulch and top soil, chatting en espanol.

Once Jack has gotten over his astonishment that Hen speaks Spanish, he starts conversing more with Hen and is rewarded with not only answers, but snippets of things Hen is interested in. When Beth finds out about Hen's increasing verbal skills in both languages, she is furious with Jack for not telling her immediately, nor taking Hen to the doctor. What controlling Beth cannot do is be proud and supportive of Hen or Jack.

On a whim, Jack and Rena take Hen out to a bar on Karaoke night, and Hen and Rena get up and sing a song together, thus cementing Hen's acceptance of Beth's departure and Rena's arrival into his confusing life. With Rena, Hen starts coming out of his shell, showing Jack a child he had only dreamed about a couple of weeks back, before Beth left.

While out with Hen and Rena, Rena drives past a putt-putt golf place that was closed down. They stop because Jack wants to look at the huge fiberglass marine sculptures. The owner comes out, lets them play a round of golf, and Jack gets another of his crazy ideas. He buys the marine animals that he plans to use in his back yard as decoration for a cement big wheel and tricycle figure 8 track for Hen. Not that Hen has ever ridden on any toy, but you never know.

The very next day, through a series of questionable deals, Jack gets the NCDOT to build the track, only he decides to put it in the yard of his auction house, where he has recently moved himself and Hen to. In the midst of construction, Beth pulls up the driveway and has a screaming fit in front of Hen, Rena, and the construction guys. Beth becomes physically aggressive when things don't go her way, and from that point there is a downward spiral of anger and hurt feelings for all of the characters. No happy ending to this story of anger, jealously and flawed people all surrounding a child that needs normalcy, quiet, and routine.

I found much of this book tragic. The inability of any of the characters to tap into their own selves, the utter lack of communication by all of them, and the unwillingness to stop and realize that their adult misbehaviour were deleteriously affecting an autistic child frankly pissed me off. As adults, we should be better than that.

And yet I loved this book, despite the flaws of the characters. What other reviewers saw as funny, I saw as quirky tragedy. Such a beautifully imagined and written story impacted me to write this, as well as to go back and read it again just for the prose. For all the sadness and nuttiness this read presented, I urge you to read it next in your pile of books. Really, read it. It will affect you in ways you just can't fathom.

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