On the Spectrum
Written by Jennifer Gold
Published by Second Story Press
Age range: 13 +
Summary (from Goodreads):
Growing up in the shadow of a famous mother, Clara has never felt good about her body. Now, at sixteen, she has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. After a social media disaster, she decides to escape for the summer to Paris to stay with her estranged dad and her six-year-old brother, Alastair, who is on the autism spectrum. Charged with his care, Clara and Alastair set out to explore the city. Paris teaches Clara about first love and gives her a new love of food. And Alastair teaches Clara about patience, trust and the beauty of loving without judgment.
When I was four, my mother dressed me up for Halloween in a miniature tutu and pinned my baby-fine hair on top of my head in a right knot that matched her own.
Dressed in one of her own exquisite costumes and a pair of delicate warm-up slippers, my mother led me down the halls of our New York apartment building for my first trick-or-treating. I trotted proudly behind her, half hidden by her impossibly long legs.
“Don’t slouch, Clara.”
She grasped me by the shoulders, pulling them firmly back. Her hazel eyes wandered downward, her mouth twisting ever so slightly.
“And suck in your stomach.”
If my smile faltered, it was only for a moment. Confused, I stared at my protruding belly, poking out of the top of the tulle skirt. I took a deep breath in, watching my abdomen contract.
Mum patted me gently on the head as my eyes watered. Was I allowed to breathe?
I really enjoyed this by the end, although it took a little while for me to get into the story.
I thought that Clara, the main character, was interesting and enjoyed the fact that, while each character had their problems, the focus was on their relationships with each other. The main character suffers from orthorexia, an unhealthy focus on healthy eating and exercise. Her mother, a ballet dancer, sees this as normal but pays the price with reduced bone density and osteoporosis.
My favourite character was Alastair, her younger brother. I liked how sensitively he was portrayed and the consistent message that he is different but not any less than the ‘neurotypical’ people around him. At one stage I worried that the author might be trying to cram in too many messages, with the thread about Michel and his half-Algerian background leading to some racism, but the focus soon returned to the characters and their relationships. The romance element was fairly standard ‘holiday romance’ but the strength of this book was not in the romance, but in describing the connections every character has to all the others.
The setting was also very fondly described, without overshadowing the story. I have only visited Paris once, but can see why people say it never leaves you. I enjoyed revisiting some favourite places through the eyes of the characters in this book.
What I liked: The characters, particularly Alastair, The setting (Paris!), the description of ASD and how it was only part of what made Alastair unique, just like his eye colour. The description of the sibling relationship and the deep, irrational love family provokes.
Even better if: I felt that the romance was unnecessary and it would have perhaps been a stronger book without it. Clara was already changing because of her family ties and I liked that character development, without bringing in the possible aspect of wanting to change for a boy.
How you could use it in your classroom: I would recommend it to educators to understand some aspects of autism and orthorexia (which I have since learned more about). It could also be useful with secondary school children when discussing healthy eating, a healthy lifestyle, etc.
Alastair laughed, and I realized I hadn’t heard him laugh before. It was an odd high-pitched but beautiful sound. His cheeks were flushed with excitement and his curly hair whipped about his face in the wind. I felt a surge of joy, a feeling in the pit of my stomach that had nothing to do with the merry-go-round.
(Thank you to Netgalley and Second Story Press for my free review copy)