Book Review: Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

harmony

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, a taut, emotionally wrenching story of how a seemingly “normal” family could become desperate enough to leave everything behind and move to a “family camp” in New Hampshire–a life-changing experience that alters them forever.

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

You don’t have to be a parent to moved by this gripping story of a loving family trying to do its best for its unusual child — but I think any parent who reads Harmony will be both nodding in recognition and cringing at the pain suffered by the well-meaning parents and their two children.

Alexandra and Josh Hammond are happily married and the parents of two beautiful daughters. But as we first meet the family, daughters Tilly, age 13, and Iris, age 11, are in the back seat of the car as the family makes its way to New Hampshire, having given up their old lives in a last grasp towards normalcy at Camp Harmony.

Camp Harmony is the brainchild of Scott Bean, a charismatic family counselor who seems to have all the answers. And Alexandra is desperate. Tilly is incredibly smart, but she’s wild and impulsive, full of tics and odd habits and obsessions, and lately has become a danger to herself. Even the last resort, super expensive private school for special needs children has finally said that they can no longer care for Tilly appropriately. When Scott Bean’s “Harmonious Parenting” crosses Alexandra’s radar, she becomes more and more convinced that Scott holds all the answers for her family. Ultimately, the family sells everything to invest, along with two other families, in Camp Harmony. The camp will provide a back-to-nature, holistic living experience, where the core families create a nurturing environment for all their children, then host paying families who come on week-long retreats in order to soak up the positive experience and bring it home with them.

Scott Bean is clearly slick and polished, but he’s full of charm when he wants to be and it’s easy to understand how a family with no other options might see him as a light in the darkness. And at first, he seems to have a magic touch with the kids, despite the families’ hesitations over some of the camp rules, such as no electronics, no individual storing of car keys, no alcohol, and all sorts of work assignments and consequences for behavioral infractions.

We see the family’s journey both through Iris’s eyes, as she narrates events starting from the Hammonds’ arrival at camp, and through Alexandra’s, as she describes the bumpy history of her and Josh’s child-rearing and Tilly’s escalating veering off the rails. It’s heartbreaking, truly, to see these good and decent parents doing the best they can, and still having no answers and feeling like they’re losing the ability to even keep their child safe, much less nurtured and encouraged.

There’s yet a third perspective sprinkled occasionally throughout the book — Tilly narrates a few chapters, here and there, which describe an imaginary museum dedicated to Hammond family history. She takes an almost anthropological look at the society and culture of the time:

Either way, though, it was an intriguing period of history; the quaint euphemisms (“special needs,” for example, and “on the spectrum”), the fearmongering and misinformation, the chaos caused by the lack of an agreed-upon medical and therapeutic protocol. The elders lingered on the era’s rudimentary understanding of neuroscience, the dissent within the medical community itself as to nomenclature, classification, and diagnostic criteria. Celebrities giving advice based on superstition, rather than medical fact. The worry that a child’s natural inclinations and tendencies might become more destructive if left untreated. Parents seemed to be afraid of their own children’s brains.

Wow. That last sentence hurts my heart.

Author Carolyn Parkhurst has a way with words that is powerful and descriptive. She makes the reader care about these people. For the story to work, we have to sympathize; we have to understand how a normal, sane set of parents could end up sucked into a situation that revolves around a charismatic leader with increasingly bizarre rules and tests for loyalty. Sounds cultish? Yup, it does. But the wonder of Harmony is that we can see it happen, and even as we tell ourselves that they should have seen it coming and we would never allow ourselves to get sucked in like that… well, how do we know? For people at the end of their rope, desperate measures may not seem so crazy after all.

Importantly, for this story to really work, I think it’s important that we care about Iris and Tilly as individuals, and the book gives them powerful, wonderful voices. The girls are clearly bright and full of passion. Tilly is amazing. Yes, she would drive you crazy if she was your big sister, and I can’t imagine having to deal with some of her more extreme behavior, such as her non-stop sexual comments or her unpredictable meltdowns. But at the same time, she’s powered by an inner curiosity and light, and we’re left hoping that her life may improve, that she’ll find a way to transition from her difficult adolescence into someone who can function in a demanding world.

As I mentioned, the writing in Harmony is just beautiful. The descriptions of the land, the family dynamics, the fears and hopes of new parents, and the blossoming and maturing of love within a marriage are all so lovely. Here’s a small moment at a wedding, as the DJ has all married couples start a romantic dance, then calls off the years until only the longest-married couples remain:

You’re still safe; it’s fifteen years since you stood where that girl in the white dress is standing. Here’s what you have in common with the couples still moving around you: you know, all of you, what these newlyweds are in for, these starry-eyed fledglings who think this is the moment where everything good begins. You’re dancing alongside veterans of wars and miscarriages and a thousand day-today disappointments. You cling to your husband, happy in his arms until it’s time to move to the side, to make way for couples who have lived through even more.

Harmony is an unusual, lovely, disturbing, emotionally wrenching book about families and love. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: Harmony
Author: Carolyn Parkhurst
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

small great things

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

 

This is another example of a book that I tore through and couldn’t put down… but with time passing after finishing the book, I find my reaction to it shifting the more I think about it.

The story itself is completely absorbing. We have three point-of-view characters: Ruth, the African-American nurse; Turk, the White Supremacist father; and Kennedy, the white public defender who describes herself early on as someone who doesn’t see color (race) at all.

It’s an interesting approach. We often see the same sets of interactions through more than one person’s eyes, so that when Kennedy makes a point about how supportive she is and how she’s devoted herself to defending people of color, Ruth perceives these statements as coming from a woman of privilege who does not even recognize how her privilege pervades her own life. This leads to interactions throughout the book in which Kennedy is caught short, forced to recognize the unacknowledged racism that informs her life, despite considering herself a force for good and a champion of social justice.

Picoult makes many good and important points in this novel about the way privilege and racism go hand in hand, and how people with privilege seem not to recognize that for one person to succeed because of their skin color and economic status, someone else must not. Where I think Picoult is on somewhat shaky ground is in her chapters using Ruth’s POV. While any author should be able to write convincingly through the voice of his/her characters, whether or not they have anything in common personally with those characters, the use of Ruth’s voice here occasionally made me uncomfortable.

Should a white author be able to write as a black character? Yes, of course. And yet, so much of Ruth’s POV is focused on her experiences as a black woman, explaining how her life has been shaped by boxes society assigns her and the implicit racism in her daily encounters. At some points, it started to feel like appropriation to me. Picoult is essentially explaining blackness to her readers — presumably, a mostly white audience — and it can feel disingenuous.

At the same time, I understand from a few blog mentions I’ve seen that the publisher made early copies of the novel available without the author being disclosed (the concept was #ReadWithoutPrejudice), and I wonder about that experience. Might I have felt differently about Ruth’s voice if I didn’t know the identity of the author? It’s possible.

On the other hand, I didn’t have a problem with her portrayal of Turk, the white supremacist who is also a grieving father and devoted, loving husband. Understanding from within his mind how his life has led him to this point and how he became such a strong believer and advocate for hate is fascinating and informative, and also scary as hell.

Kennedy feels like a pretty typical Picoult lawyer. She’s a working mother, a dedicated professional looking for her opportunity to take on a case she feels passionately about, and thinks she knows about justice in America by virtue of her work as a public defender. Ruth forces her to confront her own assumptions and biases and tear down a bit of the wall that keeps her from seeing just how her white privilege has enabled her to be the person she is now.

In terms of the plot, it’s a doozy of a set-up. At the parents’ request, a note is added to the baby’s medical file saying that no African American personnel are to touch the baby. But Ruth is the only African American staff member in the labor and delivery ward, so this is clearly an order targeted specifically at Ruth, and only Ruth. I wish the book had explored the legalities of this a bit more. Hospitals honor patients’ requests, when reasonable — but this seems so blatantly unreasonable that it never should have stood as an order to begin with.

I had a hard time accepting that the criminal case could or would go forward as described. There was no evidence against Ruth to begin with, and the rush to judgment against her seems simply unrealistic. I just wasn’t convinced at all by the set-up of the legal case.

Further, Kennedy tells Ruth repeatedly that race is never brought into the courtroom — that it’s a sure-fire way to alienate the jury, and that it JUST ISN’T DONE. That may be, but I wish Picoult had fleshed this out a bit more with examples or explanations. This becomes a turning point in the trial, and only knowing that it’s not done because Kennedy says so doesn’t really drive home the real-life situation. I wanted to know — is this a plot device, or is this really borne out in real-life courtrooms? As it was written, I wasn’t really convinced, and like Ruth, didn’t buy that there wouldn’t be merit in telling the story as it played out in terms of the race relations of the people involved.

Finally, there’s a plot twist at the very end. I haven’t read every single Jodi Picoult novel, but I’ve read enough to know that a huge twist is pretty standard for her books. I won’t get into what the twist is in Small Great Things, but I will say that I thought it was rather unbelievable and unnecessary. The story didn’t need it, and the timing and delivery were just odd.

Overall, I’d say that Small Great Things is a fast and compelling read, but that it left me feeling like I’d been lectured to in a way that detracts a bit from the power of the story. The story itself is complicated and twisty, although there are so many side elements thrown in (the charismatic TV personality, the darker skinned sister who chooses to refuse the path that Ruth has taken, the wealthy white family that Ruth’s mother worked for as a maid for 50 years) that by the end, the courtroom scenes, which should be the dramatic climax of the book, feel a little rushed and curtailed.

From reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, it’s clear that Picoult poured her heart and soul into her research for this book, and has embarked on her own personal journey to recognize the inherent racism that’s a part of white privilege. I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, but all this earnestness doesn’t necessarily translate into great fiction. When the storyline takes a back seat to the message, it can start feeling overly preachy. I was fascinated by the unfolding story and become involved in Ruth’s struggles and her quest for true justice, but the use of POVs and the shoe-horning in of everything Picoult has learned about race in America weaken the power of the legal drama at the center of the narrative.

Still, I’d say that Picoult’s fanbase will of course love Small Great Things, and I’d recommend it to others as well. Jodi Picoult’s books are always thought-provoking, and she’s a master when it comes to taking even abhorrent characters and showing their humanity. She lets us see Turk and his wife as bereaved parents, and their pain is no less real and heartfelt than anyone else’s, despite the fact that they’re absolutely revolting in every other way. This, I think, is a great example of the power of Picoult’s writing: She takes us inside lives and minds we might otherwise never see, and always manages to show us the sparks of humanity to be found in the most unexpected places.

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The details:

Title: Small Great Things
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 11, 2016
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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