20 April 2014

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

It is so great when books incorporate characters who are underrepresented in the media without making readers feel that they're just ticking off boxes and filling quotas, and Cammie McGovern's first book for young adults, Say What You Will , does just that.  It's the story of Amy, a girl with cerebral palsy, and Matthew, one of her peer helpers who gets her through the day at school.  You see, Amy cannot walk unassisted, or speak without her voice box & computer pad, or even eat most foods.  Up until now, her schools have always provided professional assistants to help her with all of these functions, but that has left her friendless and isolated with only adults interacting with her all day long, whether it's her parents, her teachers, or her aids. Now that it's her senior year, she has talked her parents into hiring peer helpers in the hopes that she will become better socially adjusted and make her first friends.

Sounds like this could be an After School Special, right?  Except that McGovern does a great job of keeping things pretty real and not too sappy.  Much of the book is told in a close third person narrative, getting into the heads of both Amy and Matthew, but McGovern fills in the gaps with both text messages and emails that are sent back and forth.

Before long, Amy becomes closer to Matthew than to any of her other peer helpers, and she starts to fall in love with him.  He plays his cards a bit more closely to the chest, and even if he recognized his feelings for Amy as love, his increasingly erratic OCD behavior and thinking keep him from acting on anything.  So you've got the agony and ecstasy of falling in love for the first time, but obviously in this case there are major complications. Matthew is not sure Amy is capable of having a physical relationship, and he's not sure that he's capable of even holding her hand without having to wash his hands obsessively both before and after. Amy, for her own part, tries to give out decreasingly subtle hints to say that she's ready to take their friendship to the next level, sex and all.

To complicate matters even further, Amy's parents don't really approve of her feelings for Matthew and want to push her in the direction of Sanjay, another of her peer helpers, because he's ambitious and capable and self-confident: everything that Matthew is not.  Brilliant Amy is college bound, spoiled for choice with her acceptances at Stanford and multiple Ivy League schools, while Matthew feels that he might be capable of taking a correspondence course but not much more. Basically, it's Pretty In Pink where academics play the role of class.

McGovern has a deft and comic touch when writing Matthew and Amy.  Most of the time I identified with both of these young people, and I particularly admired the ways Amy was both philosophical and practical in the face of her physical limitations. The book takes a slightly soap-opera turn in the last quarter, but even that was resolved quite well and ended up being more hopeful and pragmatic than most teen book.  I really recommend this book for all folks who enjoy YA novels, but beyond that, it's a solid read for anybody searching for an unconventional protagonist or an under-represented one.

Here's an email sample from the first chapter of the book, from Amy to Matthew, that I think gives you a flavor for the style and direction this book takes:
To: mstheword@gmail.com
From: aim high@comcast.net
Re: I'm happy! 
I just slipped into my mother's office to look at the names of my new peer helpers, and I'm so happy! Your name is on the list! I thought maybe I'd scared you by coming right out and asking you to apply.  I realize it's an unusual setup, but try not to think of it as my parents offering to pay people to be my friend. I know there's something unsettling and prideless in that. I prefer to think of it this way: my parents are paying people to pretend to by my friend.  This will be much closer to the truth, I suspect, and I have no problem with this. I'm guessing that a lot of people in high school are only pretending to be friends, right? It'll be a start, I figure. 
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by the publisher. It will be available from Harper Teen in June 2014.  The author also happens to be somewhat local to my bookstore, but I read it out of my own interest and not at the behest of either author or publisher.

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