Recently I was reading a book with a protagonist who was clearly coded to be neurodivergent. I say "coded" because this character had no formal diagnosis of anything, though the signals clearly pointed to a form of Autism. On the one hand, it is good to see neurodivergent characters and many adults lack an actual diagnosis. On the other hand, it can be used as a gimmick rather than a character study.
I ended up putting this book down. It comes out next year. It has rave reviews and has already sold rights to film or tv. I expect many people will read it. But I couldn't swallow it and it's hard to explain precisely why. Some of it is just a gut feeling, where it becomes clear that we have this kind of protagonist because the author finds it useful. (You see this a lot in modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes where they code him/her as somewhere on the spectrum or OCD.) This particular book bothered me because it wanted to present this character to us as very naive and innocent, that this made them an unlikely hero in the genre, that everything seemed to be presented to a neurotypical audience with the expectation that we would find this character charming, quirky, and sweet. This is also what can happen with news stories about how aw isn't it nice that a normal took a not-normal to prom, and it was the tone that really did me in.
Thinking about this made me wonder what were the good examples I could give as alternatives, to show that it does not have to be this way. And I do have a few for you. Even better, the three are all character studies more than anything else, where the author treats their protagonist as a full human who is obviously valuable and interesting.
My favorite of these is Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen. It's set in Northern Ireland during the troubles (and if you do the audio, Derry Girl Nicola Coughlan does an excellent narration) and not only the time period but a million other reasons make it clear why our protagonist, Majella, is most likely autistic but undiagnosed. She has also made a way for herself in the world, found the rules she needs to follow to make her life workable. She has a job at a chip shop that she finds satisfying. She doesn't always like other people but she has casual sex just like many other young women. It also becomes clear, over the course of the novel, that she will have to break out of those protective boundaries she's set for herself. If at first, Majella's list of rules feels like a gimmick, it becomes clear as we follow Gallen's lead that the whole story is about how an emotional upheaval in her life will require Majella to find new coping mechanisms. Majella is prickly but she has a keen, observant eye. She can feel a bit repetitive as a narrator, but isn't that what you'd expect from someone who has set up their life to exist in as small and controlled a space as possible? By the end I was ready to die for Majella, she existed so fully for me.
Another I enjoyed is Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin. This is a portrait of deep depression and anxiety and some people find it very funny. I found it too bleakly real to be funny, though our protagonist Gilda does have a morbid sense of humor that I enjoyed. There are lots of People Make Terrible Choices novels and this is definitely one of them, but here you really get to see how Gilda's mental health and her patterns of behavior lead her into making those bad decisions. (The chief bad decision here is that Gilda, an atheist lesbian, takes on a job as a secretary in a Catholic Church, hiding her real identity.) Gilda is the kind of character who just stops going to work because she cannot fathom doing it when in the depths of her depression. And because she won't follow a treatment plan, she knows everyone in the ER by name. You can see how this can read as either sad or funny depending on the reader, but I really enjoyed the time I spent with her, even if it also made me sad. (Would love to be a fly on the wall while a book club fought about this one.)
There's one more, that's in my current reading below, Joan Is Okay, out in January. I read this just a few days after putting down That Other Book and found it to be a very soothing balm to my grumbling. Joan can be seen as a robot by other people in her life, they are always telling her what choices to make to fit their idea of what a person should be. But Joan is going to be herself, I loved how confident she was and how she wasn't willing to fit ideas other people had for her.
I guess if I think about it, if you aren't willing to make your neurodivergent protagonist relatable, if you aren't willing to present them as someone the audience will feel a kinship with, then you are doing it wrong. If you present them to us as someone who is different, then you are doing everyone, including your protagonist, a disservice.
A legal thriller set in Atlanta about Ellice, a 40-something Black woman with a past that she put far behind her to become a successful attorney. When her boss (who she also happened to be sleeping with) is found dead in his office, Ellice finds herself suddenly promoted to the executive suite, which also happens to be populated by a bunch of white good old boys who don't seem to want her there and definitely want her to keep her nose out of some of their deals. As she digs in to figure out what happened, she finds a lot more than she bargained for.
This is a debut but the pacing is really solid and, more than most thrillers, it has a strong emotional arc for Ellice. It's just as important to us that she come to grips with the choices she's made to run away from her past and her secrets than that she figure out what's behind this potential conspiracy. We get to see exactly how she ended up being the person she is, who protects herself with money, a relationship that can never be public, a stable job, and a closet full of expensive clothes, but who has kept everyone at a distance.
The novel also clearly understands the way race plays into Ellice's life. It explains racism sometimes, which is probably a smart move when thriller audiences tend to be older and white, but it also takes on the more nuanced issue of how tokens can be promoted to figureheads and also set up to fail.
My big sticking point here is that if you are like me and find yourself getting hung up on things that don't make sense, there were at least 50 times in this book where a lawyer like Ellice would have gotten a lawyer. But if she'd done that then everything would have gone much better and we wouldn't have a book. Still makes me grumpy, tho.
As children, Bea and her brothers were subjects in her mother's photographs, which became famously controversial. Her mother's artistic vision destroyed their family, and Bea got away as soon as she could and never looked back. Now nearly 60, the art world is more interested than ever and a museum and a documentarian have come calling, asking Bea for permission to put her mother's work back in the public eye and forcing Bea to deal with the trauma she's avoided most of her life.
It is very hard to create art about fictional artists, especially fictional artists who became iconic in this fictional world. You can explain a painting or a song or a novel and tell us why it has such status in this fictional world, but it always feels out of reach to me. This novel is one of the most successful I've come across, Gangi really dives into not just the photographs themselves, but the context in which they were taken. And they are so obviously controversial (Bea and her brothers were photographed in the nude) that Gangi doesn't need to explain their societal weight to you. It helps that the focus is not on Bea's mother, but on Bea and her brothers.
Along with the writing about art, the thing I loved most about this book was how it is a coming of age novel, even though we have a protagonist approaching retirement age. Bea has to do a lot of the growing up she should have done in her 20's. But because she isn't in her 20's, we get to spend a lot of time with a woman who is deeply aware of her body and how it is changing, as well as how the world views her differently as she gets older. I loved Bea's frankness about her body, about clothes and makeup, about how she decided to present herself to the world, about her feelings of desirability.
Clearly some big content warnings about this, that include not just the photographs but some serious plot lines around child molestation and suicide. These are mostly off the page but they're central elements in the story.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: Already out! Read it now!
The central event in this novel is a car accident on an icy road. No one reports the accident and the man in the car run off the road dies. Jeanette and Sandra are both connected to this crime, though it's not exactly clear how at first. For years they have kept secrets about what happened, but a few years later they all threaten to come to light.
I picked this up because it showed up on a Best Mysteries of the Year list, but it did not work for me. The prose felt flat, there was so much time spent in characters heads processing the same information over and over again, and then each character would jump in to have their own thoughts on the matter, so you end up going over the same facts about 100 different times.
The early chapters are purposely vague, and not in a "I would like to learn more" kind of way. Later it becomes clear that they withhold so much so that the author can reveal more to you as you go along, but this frustrated me rather than intrigued me. It just made it clear that I could not count on any version of events as the complete one. I think the concept could have been disorienting and a way to keep the reader on their toes, it just didn't execute.
Some of the twists were pretty good, but most of them were easy to predict or not all that interesting. None of our major characters really go on much of an emotional journey. And Sandra in particular is one of those characters who keeps escalating an already-dangerous situation for no good reason.
I did like that some of the main characters were "misfits," people on the edges of society and the kind of community they form with each other. But that sense of remove, which is strongest with Jeanette, who does not actually care about anyone, even herself, kept it from feeling like you really got to know them.
If you try it and the style and tone work for you, then by all means give it a go. But I didn't like it much from the beginning, I assumed from the rave review that it would improve.
Release Date: Jan 18, 2022
Shelves: Author of Color, General Fiction
A simple, slice-of-life novel about a Chinese-American ICU doctor that considers her work, her relationship with her family, her solitude, and (eventually) the pandemic. Much of what's interesting here is about how Joan's straightforward Joan-ness can be a struggle for other people.
Joan is not a very complicated person, and this can confuse the people around her. When someone new moves in across the hall and tries to befriend her he is baffled to find her apartment mostly empty, with no television or books. He takes it upon himself to change this, though he never actually takes Joan's opinion into account. Joan is the kind of person that can sometimes run head on into other people's desires this way, it also happens with her brother and sister-in-law, who live on an absurdly large estate in Connecticut and keep insisting Joan modify her life in ways large and small to fit with their idea of success. Joan's boss, however, may not understand why she is the way she is, but he loves the way she loves her work. Rewarding her over her peers sends one of her white male perfection-focused colleagues into a bit of a meltdown.
Despite Joan's own simple desires, she is aware of the world around her. She understands how her place as a woman of color and a daughter of Chinese immigrants impacts her place in the world. She may not change herself to fit the idea of what people expect of her because of her race and/or gender, but she isn't oblivious. Joan just wants what she wants.
This is the kind of protagonist that people will want to label neurodivergent, although it's unclear whether that's actually true. Joan can often be literal. Calling her social skills "awkward" is generous. She has struggled to connect with people, including her own family, and after her father's death people find her response cold, though we see clearly in Joan's own mind how much time she spends grieving her father's loss. Sometimes this type of protagonist is a gimmick, but happily Wang sees her as a full and lovable human being, which is just as it should be.
The book is set from the fall of 2019 through the spring of 2020, and includes the early pandemic. We do not see much of the actual pandemic, but once news of the virus in China begins, it becomes a slow-drip where we know what's coming. It is not a significant focus of the novel and not much time is spent discussing lockdown or death, if that's still a sticking point for you.
Wang's prose is clearly still hers, in short bursts as in CHEMISTRY. This can irk me in some but with Wang it always suits her material.