Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

harmonyThis is the third book I’ve read by Carolyn Parkhurst, and each one has left me with deeply mixed feelings.  There are many books you put down and don’t really remember.  Hers are the opposite.  She gives you beautiful writing and compelling characters, but a story that’s impossibly unrealistic and leaves you wishing for more.

My feelings about Harmony are similar to her previous novels Dogs of Babel and The Nobodies Album, but this time she touches on a subject I’m deeply interested in, the lives of a family with a child on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum.  The book explains it is technically PDD-NOS, which is on the autism spectrum, and the parent explains that’s maybe a mix of Aspergers and Tourette’s.  I liked that the book talks about the complexity of even just diagnosing these conditions, which are so different across the spectrum.

Parkhurst really brings us into the minds – and lives- of Tilly and her mother and sister.  I suspect (but couldn’t confirm) that Parkhurst is writing about a child she knows in this book, because the description is so vivid. There’s a reviewer on Goodreads who says Parkhurst is writing about her son, and that girls with Asperger’s present differently, but then there is so much conflicting information about girls with Asperger’s, I can’t say what’s true.  Maybe this book will add to the conversation.

At any rate, this is fiction, and it’s the story about three families who join together with a guy named Scott Bean to create a camp in remote New Hampshire for families with children on the spectrum, Camp Harmony.  The idea is that a week at this camp will teach families to interact better and this will benefit the entire family, not just the child.  There’s no science behind it, just Scott Bean’s vision, but what he does seems to work.

The lawyer side of my brain completely balked at the idea of a DC family uprooting their children and sinking all of their possessions into a camp that seemed to have no business management or legal protection.  No one has any experience running a camp.  Scott starts worrying about the many ways their camp could be shut down, which was maddening – of course you’d need to think about things like child injury and staff liability before you ever opened a camp.

I sympathized with mother Alexandra in this book, but I found myself increasingly bothered by the family’s behavior towards Iris.  One the one hand, I imagine that is a huge challenge for a family with a typically developing sibling (Iris) and a sibling on the autism spectrum (Tilly).  Parkhurst explores the relationship between Iris and Tilly, and Iris’ love for her sister and also her confusion about her own role in the family.  Is she more than just the good kid, the responsible one?

On the other hand, there’s a point in this book where it feels like no one’s interested in Iris, and that made me angry.  And then I became less interested in where this family was going.

Parkhurst explains in incremental steps what led the family to open the camp, and while it’s a compelling story it doesn’t exactly lead to “and then we sold everything we owned, put our kids in the car and bought a camp in the middle of nowhere.”  Especially since that camp means handing over management of your life and family to one guy.  And then, as Parkhurst tends to do, she takes an unrealistic storyline and goes even further.

Stylistically, the book is interesting and mostly works.  Iris and Alexandra narrate most of the book, only Alexandra narrates from 2nd person.  Iris’ chapters are dated like journal entries but her writing is nothing like the journal of an eleven year old.  Tilly has several chapters written from an unspecified future.

There is beautiful writing in this book and lovely insights about raising a child on the autism spectrum.  I’m NOT a parent or a special education expert, so I can’t say if these insights will be relevant to other parents or professionals.  I would love to hear what others think.

I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Penguin Group Viking.  This book published on August 2, 2016.

  2 comments for “Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

  1. August 13, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I’ve read two Carolyn Parkhurst novels and found them very different from each other. I must say that I LOVED Dogs of Babel.

    The issue at the centre of Harmony doesn’t really interest me, so I may or may not read it. Thank you for astute review!

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