CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 3. . . .September 22, 2017
On the Spectrum.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2017.
320 pp., trade pbk., $13.95.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Bev Brenna.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“Butter isn’t bad, though. It’s a natural product,” Alastair persisted.
I looked over at my father for help, but it seemed he was actually enjoying this. Sure, I thought angrily, he thinks I have an eating disorder, and this is somehow going to help. Like I’m an alcoholic in need of an intervention. I dug my nails into the waistband of my jeans.
“Butter,” I said levelly, “Is full of fat.”
Alastair looked surprised. “But you don’t get fat if you eat it.”
“Yes,” I said, gritting my teeth. “You do.”
“I eat butter all the time, and I’m only in the twenty-fifth percentile for weight for my age. The doctor said so.”
“Well, not all of us are that lucky,” I snapped.
“Why is that lucky?” Now he looked puzzled.
“If I ate a lot of butter, I would get fat,” I said flatly. “I’m not skinny like you. So I don’t want to. Okay?”
He studied me, not saying anything for several minutes. “You are skinny,” he said finally. “What percentile are you in?”
“I don’t know!” I felt my temper and voice both rise. “Can you just drop it?”
“Drop what?” He looked at his hands. “I’m not holding anything.”
Growing up with her famous ballerina mother, Clara has never felt good about her body. Now, at 16, she has orthorexia, a disorder characterized by obsessions about healthy eating. After a number of escalating events cause further stress, Clara decides to spend the summer in Paris with her estranged father and six-year-old brother Alastair who is on the autism spectrum.
Jennifer Gold does a beautiful job of rendering the conversations between Clara and Alastair, and both characters are never so clearly defined and captivating as when they are with each other. The research behind their unique traits is solid, and the aspects of eating disorders and autism presented throughout the novel are exceptionally well done. In addition, Gold’s sensitive and detailed depictions of these characters demonstrate with great insight the very fine line between wellness and illness, and how the spectrum can reflect all of us to some extent in specific situations. A reader may leave this book thinking that, while people are all different, there is much that is universal about humans and behaviour, and lots of ability where disability might be defined.
The choice to set most of the story in Paris adds a rich backdrop, with landmarks such as the Café Les Deux Magots, the Sainte-Chapelle, and the Jardin des Tuileries among other famous sites important to the rising action of the story.
One of the most captivating things about this novel involves its cleverly crafted humour. Many conversations read like repartee while remaining true to life, and one scene—where Clara’s would-be boyfriend brings her “peonies,” as Alastair identifies much to her shock, “I think she thought you said penis,”—is laugh-out-loud funny, as is another scene where the phrase “batted heads” is corrected to “butted” and becomes “butt heads.”
While most of the relationships seem very authentic, including a connection with unexpected levity between Clara and her mother, the burgeoning love interest between Clara and Michel occasionally seems a little too good to be true. At times, he seems more like a counsellor than a boy her age, suggesting at their first meeting “I will help you,” and then later offering again, “Whatever it is…I will help you.” The fact that he works in his family’s bakery, however, and is constantly creating things he wants Clara to eat, does assist with Clara’s change of heart about her own situation. In addition, many readers will find Michel to be just the kind of dreamy love interest they are hoping for.
Bev Brenna is the author of 11 books for young people including The White Bicycle, third in a trilogy about a character with ASD and shortlisted for a 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award.
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