Desert Isle Keeper
What You Wish For
What You Wish For is the first book I’ve read by Katherine Center, and it pretty much knocked my socks off. By turns funny, sad, introspective, and joyful, it was like opening a box of chocolates and realizing I actually liked all the different flavors. (Which never happens, there’s always something weird, right?) And like a good box of chocolates, I devoured this book in just one day.
Sam Casey’s idyllic life in Galveston, Texas, gets upended when her principal/friend/surrogate father passes away abruptly. Max Kempner founded and ran the private elementary school where Sam works as a librarian, and he was the heart and soul of both the school and their community. When Max dies, he leaves a large hole both at home and in the school, and while everyone else is still reeling from shock, his hotshot son-in-law Kent (who is Chairman of the school board) seizes the opportunity to make some changes at Kempner Elementary.
To institute these changes, Kent brings in Duncan Carpenter, a ‘rising star’ from Baltimore whom no one else knows. Except Sam starts to wonder… she knew a Duncan Carpenter when she was teaching in California a few years before. But she’s sure it can’t be the same guy – not only would this be too coincidental, but the Duncan she remembers (and who Sam had a major crush on) was a goofy, fun-loving teacher who started traditions like Hat Day and Friday dance parties. Duncan’s character was far closer to Max’s than Kent’s so she can’t imagine that her Duncan Carpenter and the new principal will be one and the same.
As it turns out, he is and he isn’t. While Duncan did work with Sam in California, he’s no longer the man she knew then. Instead of wearing crazy ties and colorful pants, this man shows up in a gray three-piece suit. Instead of shaking hands and introducing himself to his new staff, this man makes a speech about ‘revolutionizing’ their school and then walks away. Instead of praising the beautiful murals around their building, this man announces he will be painting all their walls gray in order to improve visibility. This new Duncan has abandoned his penchant for mischief and play in favor of an obsession with school safety and security. And sadly, with all the school violence in the news in recent years, it’s not hard for the reader to guess why.
While Sam doesn’t catch on to Duncan’s traumatic past as quickly as I did, she does feel certain that something of the old Duncan must be in there. Although the faculty is doing everything they can to resist Duncan’s strictures, Sam slowly starts to befriend the lonely man. She starts visiting his office to complain about his rules, at which point their conversations turn toward other topics like Sam’s clown socks. They start to build a rhythm, and their chemistry together is obvious. It only gets stronger when Sam learns that Duncan was involved in a school shooting, which is at the root of his new security vigilance. Armed with this understanding, Sam and two close friends develop ‘Operation Duncan’, a plan to help Duncan remember who he used to be and find joy in life again.
In a year as difficult as 2020, I especially appreciated the way the author is able to address the dark realities of the world while also emphasizing the joys of life. Sam struggled with epilepsy as a child, and its recent resurgence in adulthood. When she has her first adult seizure, it has a profound impact on her – at first making her fearful and insecure, but with wisdom and assistance from Max, she is able to use that seizure to propel her into a new way of interacting with the world. The Sam we meet dresses colorfully, acts silly, and makes a conscious choice to embrace positivity in the face of doubts and fears. While her struggles are different, certain things she says clearly strike a chord in Duncan. He will never fully return to who he was before the trauma, but with the help of good friends and a therapist, Duncan is more capable of balancing the need for security, and free expression.
If I have a complaint about the book, it would be that Duncan’s old self is a little over-hyped. Sam remembers a lot about him since she had a crush on him back in the day, but each time she calls up a new list of his exploits they get more outlandish, to the point that I wondered how anyone could possibly have time to do everything that the old Duncan did. However, it’s a minor flaw that made me smile even in its absurdity, and in no way detracts from the story.
Ultimately, What You Wish For is a charming, uplifting book not only about love, but also about choosing joy in the wake of tragedy and hardship. It’s a good read any day, but especially right now.