Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Book Review: "Harmony" by Carolyn Parkhurst

"Today you may be the mom whose child seems to old to be having a tantrum in the post office (or the one whose child is touching her head to the floor of a Chinese restaurant—right there, she's doing it again), but tomorrow you may be the mom whose child holds forth on the difference between 'time' and 'thyme' in the produce aisle of the grocery store."

Life for Alexandra Hammond and her husband Josh seemed to be going well, living in Washington, DC, raising two young daughters—not bad for a couple who met while in their late teens. But when they start to realize their older daughter Tilly is having issues with her intellectual and emotional development. She's immensely smart and focused, but has trouble with anger management, social interaction, inappropriate language, and risk taking.

The Hammonds try everything they can to help Tilly's development, but even with one-on-one classes and counseling, the issues she has seem to get worse and worse. Their younger daughter Iris vacillates between pride when her sister's intelligence shows through and embarrassment when her behavior in public calls attention to her entire family. And when Tilly is asked to leave yet another school, Alexandra and Josh are at their wits' end, and it's putting a strain on their marriage.

In the midst of the chaos, Alexandra meets Scott Bean, a charismatic child behavior counselor who helps parents realize they're not to blame for their children's issues—the world they live in, the foods they eat, societal pressures, all of that are to blame. His advice helps Alexandra and her family cope with the rough spots in which they find themselves, and as she realizes that perhaps she isn't fully equipped to handle Tilly on her own, Scott presents the Hammonds with a unique opportunity: join him in rural New Hampshire where he is building a "family camp" for families like theirs. The Hammonds can be one of the camp's "core families" and serve as a role model for others.

The Hammonds sell everything they own and move to New Hampshire, where they're forced to do without television, internet, cell phones, junk food, etc., and instead focus on healthy interaction, outdoor activities, and everyone taking personal responsibility for certain tasks. They meet the two other "core families" and at first they feel as if they're flourishing in this new environment, yet the same problems arise, as do resentments about the sacrifices they must make to stay at camp, and Scott's quasi-cult leader-like behavior. But will this provide the breakthrough the Hammonds need to help Tilly? Will they be able to serve as role models for other families struggling with the same issues?

I really enjoyed Harmony for the most part, even if it was somewhat predictable. The book raised some interesting questions for me, particularly how a family deals with one child who requires more love and attention than others, and how the child deals with their sibling. It's also a look at whether bringing families with similar issues together, getting them to focus on structure without outside stimuli, can be an effective method.

The book switches back and forth between narration by Alexandra and Iris, who bring different perspectives to the story and what life is like raising and living with Tilly. But the most fascinating and poignant chapters are those narrated by Tilly, as they provide some creative foreshadowing and show just how astute and sensitive she is. It's not a perfect story by any means, and at times you want to shake the characters for not raising the issues that concern them, but at the same time you can understand why they are so wary to bring strife into what seems like a fragile bubble of salvation.

I have loved Carolyn Parkhurst's work since reading The Dogs of Babel a number of years ago. (Still can't get that one out of my head.) She has a deft touch with personal and familial interaction, and imbues her stories with subtle and overt notes of poignancy. This book is moving, intriguing, slightly frustrating, but very fulfilling, and I'm always glad to get to experience her talent.

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