Desert Isle Keeper
What to Say Next
A great contemporary YA, What To Say Next would have made my Best of 2017 list if I’d read it in time. As it is, you have a delightful treat in store for you if you missed this book last year.
David Drucker is different. He doesn’t have Asperger’s since, as he can tell you, the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 eliminated that diagnosis and rolled it under High Functioning Autism (which he doesn’t think he has either, based on some inconsistencies between his personality and the depiction of its traits in the DSM-4, which he ordered off of eBay. The new DSM-5 is too expensive). But he’s different, and that’s hard in high school. It surprises him more than anyone when Kit Lowell – if not a ‘popular girl’, then still pretty and well-liked – sits next to him at lunch. He’s always thought she was beautiful, a fact he’s recorded in his social support notebook. But they have only had four notable encounters (as documented in said notebook). Why is she sitting with him now?
Kit’s also surprised to find herself with David. But since the death of her father in a car accident, she’s been struggling to slot back into her old life, and her friends, and the regular lunch table and the regular chatter seem impossible to go back to when so much has changed. David is, at least, quiet. Except when they start talking, he’s not. The boy with such social awkwardness is, surprisingly, the best at talking about death and loss, which are the most awkward conversations of all.
And a relationship is born.
I loved Kit and David. Kit’s a lovely young lady – half Indian and half white-American, like the author, and her family story feels authentic. David is funny but also real. His awkwardness is genuine, and he has had some terrible bullying experiences because of it. But the two of them together always feel right. I love characters who are good for each other, and this is a wonderful example of that. Being with Kit inspires David to discover that with the right people, some of the ‘social’ behaviors or activities he shunned can feel downright enjoyable. Being true to himself has felt right, but also lonely. Meanwhile, the author does a good job of showing that David is the right person for Kit’s grief moment, but not just for that temporary patch. He’s also the right person for the newer, sadder, but more mature person emerging on the other side of her loss.
Several supporting characters brighten this book as well. Kit’s grieving mother is realistic as she and Kit fumble for what to do, especially since her Indian parents never liked Kit’s father. David’s marvelous older sister Lauren, former queen of high school, has depth as she comes home after struggling in college. I would absolutely read a novel set simultaneously with this one starring Lauren. And the high school bullies are an authentic mix of personally troubled and just plain mean, which is unfortunately realistic as well. Not everybody has a tragic backstory to justify their behavior.
My criticism of this book is the plot. David has his bullying plot thread and Kit has the loss of her dad, and each builds and builds before culminating in climaxes that just feel too big for this story. Kit’s dad has died – does that death really need to come attached to not one, but two Big Secrets? David’s being bullied – how big and public does that really need to be? Maybe I could have handled one storyline becoming so large, but two is a lot. The author writes delightful and honest teens, and that’s strong enough.
On the other hand, a mistake David makes as part of Kit’s grief storyline leads to his grovel sequence, which is basically the most charming and romantic thing ever. Adult heroes could learn a lesson or two from David.
As YA fantasy and sci-fi trend toward ever-more-extreme powers and talents in their protagonists, it’s nice to see a pair of ordinary (although not normal!) teens in a story that’s compelling because of who they are, not what they can do. I loved spending time with them, and I’m looking forward to glomming Julie Buxbaum’s backlist to meet more lovely people like Kit and David. What to Say Next is highly recommended.