Fiction, despite being just that, is still one of the most important vehicles for portraying the sheer range of human beings and emotions in the world. Fiction allows us to “meet” people we may never encounter otherwise — including people with various disabilities. By no means is fiction a substitute for actually getting to know somebody, but if it’s done well, it can provide a tentative reflection. Being fiction, however, does not absolve a book for having incredibly stereotyped characters just for the sake of a soap opera plot. This was my problem with Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen, which purports to “deal with” NVLD (NLD) via a character named Olivia. But it doesn’t deal with it. That would require introducing the fact that NVLD can BE dealt with, which kills the sappy factor.
Now, granted, I haven’t read many love stories, which this also is in part. It may be the law that love stories must be nauseatingly cliched. The rough summary is this: Rachel Berman meets Len Bean and his daughter Olivia on the side of the road, and they decide to date on the spot. Rachel is haunted by Olivia’s fairy-child-like beauty, and the fact that she resembles the daughter with Down Syndrome she gave up. Rachel’s kids are mortified, because Olivia is the most mocked girl in school. But they have to get along, you see, because Len is dying and has granted guardianship of poor, annoying, clueless, helpless Olivia (sarcasm) to Rachel to assuage her guilt, which is apparently a better qualification than being a licensed foster parent devoted to accepting the quirks of kids like Olivia. Olivia’s quirks include talking solely about rats, hanging onto her decomposing gerbil, asking every day if it’s her birthday, wearing inside out clothes, and basically being nothing but her quirks.
Olivia fares much worse in this book than I expected her to, which I could swallow if only it weren’t so obvious that Cohen was tugging her harder than necessary as a token “heartstring.” I don’t mean to say there aren’t children who exhibit all the symptoms Olivia does — like anything else, NVLD varies widely, and that includes the extreme end. However, because the negatives were never balanced with any positives, Olivia seemed a caricature of every possible item on the NVLD checklists, a walking info-dump rather than a fully fleshed person. I believed the way the kids bully her; that was all too real. I wondered, however, if the author weren’t heaping it a little thick; Olivia exists, it seems, only for the bullying scenes. Certain omissions puzzled me.
For example, Olivia was fortunate enough to be diagnosed at 5, receiving a teacher’s aide and extensive role-playing treatment and counseling. She is 10 when we meet her, and 5 years of treatment haven’t made one dent. I’m sorry, but children do grow up and learn a little, even if by sheer trial and error. Plug in a rote action or phrase often enough, and you will eventually sift what works and what doesn’t. Especially with the benefit of private treatment, for god’s sake! And where was this teacher’s aide? I know too well that the worst bullying can be outside school, but there were scenes that this elusive aide could well have prevented. But that would cut the heartstring of lines like, “As she matured, she’d become more and more aware of the trap she was in. No matter how badly she wanted to escape, there was no real way out.” Oh, poor NVLDers! Aren’t we all just rats in a cage pining to be drowned in a bucket. Olivia, poor changeling child, whose eyes change color (I kid you not) must be protected all her days. AUGH. I’m not saying NVLD isn’t rough — I’ve admitted it, here — but jesus.
Also — who is Olivia? We know she likes rats and Lucky Charms, okay. But what does she do in school? Does she like word games? Is she good at reading or spelling bees, the way we’re shown that even Rachel’s son — a frigging minor character — likes to skateboard? We don’t know. Even her favorite band, Aly & AJ, is a pity prop — they sing about bullying, aww. Olivia is never given a frigging BRAIN. Even when she inadvertently saves the day, Rachel thinks, “Throwing her a party for being a hero was having no more impact than ironing her T-shirts.” So EXPLAIN it to her, then, and show her that one of her weaknesses turned out to be a strength. But no; Rachel just pats her head and pretends it’s her birthday (since apparently no one taught the child how a calendar works! Yes, Ms. Cohen, we do eventually remember our own birthdays.).
Because of sappy romances, we get book review comments like this — “The worst thing that can happen to a family is to be told a child has a learning disability. No, wait. It’s to lose one of the parents. No, wait. There is still one more disaster to hit the Bean family, but that comes later in the story.” Disaster, my arse. Difficult? Absolutely. Disastrous dumb rats? NO. For all Tish Cohen dedicated the book to a real girl with NVLD, Olivia the fairy child is unfairly doomed. The review in question can be found at http://www.bloggernews.net/116718. Cohen’s blog — better written than this book, which is kind of sad — can be found at http://blog.tishcohen.com