Title: What You Wish For
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.
Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.
When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.
Samantha Casey loves her life on Galveston island. The librarian at a progressive, sunny, creative elementary school, she enjoys her students and her community, and absolutely loves Max and Babette, the school’s founders who have also become a surrogate family to her.
But when Max dies suddenly at his 60th birthday party, he leaves behind a community in chaos. The school’s board of directors, headed by Max and Babette’s horrible son-in-law, announces that he’s bringing in a new principal — and it’s a name from Sam’s past, Duncan Carpenter.
Years earlier, Sam taught at the same school as Duncan, where he was the teacher at the heart of all the fun. Duncan could be counted on to juggle on the playground, wear crazy shirts, institute wacky traditions, and in general act as the chief joy creator at the school. For Sam, the problem was that she was head over heels for Duncan, but as far as she could tell, he was barely aware of her existence. Her unrequited crush on Duncan was what finally prompted her to move away and start over, and life has been good since then.
It’s startling for Sam when Duncan shows up at the start of the school year and is nothing like she remembers. Instead of Hawaiian shirts and crazy ties, he wears a grey three-piece suit, has a respectable hair cut, and seems to care only about the school’s security measures. He deems the colorful murals in the hallways and cafeteria visually distracting, cancels all field trips, and seems intent on turning the school into a grey-walled prison.
Sam and Duncan butt heads from the beginning, but eventually they start to warm up to each other. After Sam helps Duncan home after a medical appointment, the relationship thaws even further, and finally Babette comes up with a challenge, in which Duncan has to do one joyful thing, as assigned by Babette, every day if he wants to keep his job. As he carries out his tasks, his partner ends up being Sam more often than not, and the two grow close despite their personal baggage and misunderstandings.
There’s a lot of good in What You Wish For, so let’s start there. Sam is just a lovely person, and her devotion to helping kids learn and develop a lifelong long of reading is wonderful. She chooses everyday to overcome the darkness of her past and embraces celebration, color, and joy. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming attitude, shared by Babette and Sam’s best friend Alice, and indeed the whole school seems to thrive in this vibrant approach to childhood and being open to experience.
I need to give a special shout-out to Alice, who is amazing. She’s the school math teacher, and wears a different math-themed t-shirt every day, and is just all around fabulous.
Sam’s personal background and the painful experiences she’s carried with her her whole life are well-described and very sympathetic. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that while Sam embodies joyful living, she’s also very much hampered by a sense of fear and shame that keep her from allowing anyone to get too close to her, particularly in a romantic sense.
I did have some issues with this book, so I’ll share those as well. Duncan is so clearly a changed man when he shows up in Galveston, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why. (No spoilers from me, sorry!) When the truth is revealed to Sam, the details are still impactful, but it’s not like it’s a surprise in any way.
The school board’s chair, Kent Buckley, is a man described as someone you always refer to by both first and last name… and really, why? Even his in-laws? It’s just weird. Anyway, he’s awful (as he’s supposed to be), and I couldn’t quite buy that such a wonderful school would allow a jerk like that to pull all the strings and make the big decisions.
I also didn’t really feel Sam and Duncan’s romance. They go from antagonists to friends to more pretty quickly, and while it turns out that he also had feelings for her back in their earlier days teaching together, I’m not sure that I could see them overcoming their differences quite so easily. In any case, they just really don’t have much chemisty, so I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship.
What You Wish For is a quick read, and while it deals with grief and other serious matters, there’s a sweetness too in the sense of community and the absolutely lovely and supportive way that the school at large forms its own extended family.