Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: There’s More than One Way Home

By Jami Deise

When my son Alex was two in 1996, we moved into a new neighborhood and made friends with a couple who had a boy Alex’s age and an older daughter. While the girl was bright and bubbly, the boy was barely verbal, lost in his own world. As the kids grew older, my friends searched for answers while their son refused to be potty-trained. One seminar they attended assured them it was nothing – that many younger brothers of verbal sisters let their siblings do the talking for them.

Today, of course, this boy would be diagnosed with ASD before his third birthday, rather than waiting years as my friends did. In the past twenty years, autism diagnoses have exploded. (Although the jury is still out on whether the number of cases is increasing, or whether better diagnostic tools have uncovered cases that in prior years would have been classified as something else. ) And my old neighbor is not the only person I know whose child is on the spectrum. A casual glance at my Facebook feed reveals about five percent of the parents I’m friends with have children with ASD. A few have more than one. A very small percentage are adults who have the condition themselves. And even families who don’t have a member on the spectrum are impacted by it, whether it’s through the debate on vaccines or wondering the best way to accommodate a child’s classmate at a birthday party.

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects everyone.

Author Donna Levin’s latest novel, There’s More than One Way Home, offers a plot built on these issues. San Francisco mom Anna Kagen’s life is centered around her 10-year-old son Jack, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Jack attends a small private school for kids with developmental issues, but even there he is isolated and his quirks stick out. When Anna chaperones a field trip to a wooded island, Jack and a few other boys go missing. When they are found, one boy is dead and the others point their fingers at Jack, saying he pushed a child who was taunting him. Anna doesn’t believe them, but Jack doesn’t have the communication abilities to tell her what happened. Quickly, the school and the town turn against them. Before the day is over, Anna and her husband Alex – a district attorney running for re-election – are forced to hand over their son due to a 5150 order. Jack’s never spent a night without his mother. Will Anna be able to discover the truth before the ordeal destroys Jack?

This is a meaty, important plot that will resonate with anyone who loves someone on the spectrum. Kids with ASD are known to “bolt” and disappear. Some of them are so frustrated by their communication struggles that they reach out in ways that seem violent. In 2015, California parents sued a neighbor because their autistic son “attacked” other children in their neighborhood.

Yet Levin treats these serious issues lightly, like her characters are in one of Josie Brown’s Totlandia books rather than dealing with the death of a child. The night of Jack’s hospitalization, Anna immediately falls in love with the therapist on duty, and most of her mental energy is spent on that affair. As such, Anna comes across as self-centered and unsympathetic, shrugging off the pain of the parents of a dead boy and choosing her lover over her son. Anna is a character who should be easy to root for, but she is more childish than her 10-year-old son. Her divorced sister’s love life also plays a distracting role.

The case against Jack unfolds unrealistically, as an assistant DA threatens to file murder one charges against a boy and multiple inconclusive autopsies are done. A stronger edit could have fixed these problems, as well as updated the book. For no apparent reason, it’s set around 2003-04. (Jack’s Asperger’s diagnosis is the first clue; Asperger’s was folded into ASD in 2013.)

There’s more than one way home, and there’s more than one way to tell a story about a child with ASD. As I read the novel, I often thought about how Jodi Picoult would handle the material. Not surprisingly, ripped-from-the-headlines author Picoult published a book in 2010, House Rules, about a mother whose autistic teenager is accused of murder. Picoult handled the plot with the gravitas that the issues required.

With so many families impacted by ASD, many more books will be written about these parents and their children. Some of those will be dramas. Some will be comedies. There’s space on the book shelf for all these genres. But the death of a child is a horrible event, and books that feature this plot need to treat it with the weight it deserves. Had a boy not died, had Jack’s emotional health not been in jeopardy, I might have enjoyed Anna’s snarky observations and obsession over her lover. But with the stakes so high, I did not root for Anna. I judged her.

Thanks to JKS Communications for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Donna Levin: