Thursday, November 28, 2013

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Holly Goldberg Sloan has a way with words. Some author's create terrific images and sentence rhythm. She's one of them. Willow's unique voice shows that she is a genius and talks like a medical encyclopedia at times but it is balanced with beautiful metaphors, humor, and introspective thoughts.  Willow shows enough vulnerability to be interesting and there is enough emotional pull to keep the pace clipping along - even if some of the emotion is a bit over the top such as the mom's sickness on top of the tragic death. Sometimes the genius part drifts into the Land of Unbelievability such as when Willow talks about germs and salmonella as a kindergartener and the other students call her a "weirdo." Kindergarteners wouldn't even know what she was talking about in the scenario to even call her a name.  Willow also would have been identified at a young age as gifted and handled differently by the school system and her parents, but there are quite a few plot points that are not believable so just expect it when you read it and enjoy the characters. Funny how it's easy to forgive a messy plot if the character is engaging. And Willow is just that.

Willow is twelve-years-old when both of her parents die in a crash. As a genius and person who has socially avoided people, Willow is forced to connect with other people. She finds a new family when she is befriended by a Vietnamese girl she meets while going to see a student counselor. Willow learns to not only overcome her grief, but she changes those around her as well. Those who need healing as well, but in their own unique way.

*Spoiler Alert*
The plot is forced with Willow being accused of cheating. Based on her kindergarten experience the school would be onto her as a gifted kid. I don't think she would have been sent to the counselor but this is necessary for her to meet her Vietnamese friend. Quite a bit of the plot is forced and predictable. In order for Willow to talk to the Vietnamese family she teaches herself Vietnamese in three months. In order for Jairo to go to school he wins the lottery. In order for Pattie to live the in the apartment she becomes rich. The author takes the quick way out on quite a few plot elements which is a shame because she's a good writer. The most damaging plot shortcut happens in the last part with Pattie being rich (but hiding it) and living in a garage with her children causing them mental anguish which made no sense. Pattie's kind character takes on a cruel aspect and shows she cares more for Willow than her own children. It was out of character and undermines the message that building family relationships that are meaningful and creating a caring community can happen in any setting. The shift toward money as a cure-all to problems came across as a cop-out, especially after the community service the nursery-owner provides to the residents at the apartment.

Willow is not much of a flawed character and her arc mainly shows her dealing with grief and changing from being completely obsessive to more tolerant of things in life she can't control. She seems to have a form of autism, which comes across less at the end as she loses some compulsive behaviors. The point of view changes from 1st person narrative with Willow to 3rd person narrative with minor characters. I found the switch jarring at first but then settled into the rhythm later. It helps to get into other people's heads to round out the story and because Willow doesn't talk much it is necessary to be inside her head and 1st person allows that. I did like that we never go into the brother's head and that kept me guessing as to what he thought about Willow until the end when he states his feelings.

The plot is forced in many spots from relationships to money to learning a language in 3 months. I do have a bit of a pet peeve with that living overseas and even though I am a mutant at learning languages this isn't possible - even for a genius. You don't pick up a pictorial language with tonal differences in three months. But Willow does quite a few things that were impossible so just add this to the list and go with it. I did like how the lucky color "red" was carried throughout the story. Living in a Chinese culture I really notice the superstitions and emphasis on lucky numbers and colors. In general (and its always dangerous to generalize) our culture doesn't seem to believe in as many superstitions as a whole. Not that we don't have superstitions. We do. Just think of the pitchers in baseball and their lucky streaks attributed to uniforms, socks, jewelry, etc.

Dell is a dip. He's a counselor that has no business being a counselor at a school. He's a counselor in need of help and he gets it from Willow inadvertently. She doesn't mean to help him. She's just trying to survive and the situation ends up making Dell into a better person. I thought Dell was so cartoonish in the beginning that he was funny. He's Captain Underpants with an underwear wall. He lives in an apartment described as "interior shades of gray" a funny play on words that made me think of the book,"50 Shades of Gray." When the kids break glass and put them on a skylight I was transported to "La Pedrera," a gorgeous rooftop designed by Antonio Gaudi where broken glass, along with marble and tile, creates sculpture-like chimneys and prisms of light (George Lucas designed his storm troopers helmets based on "La Pedrera's" chimneys). Quang-ha, the brother, changes from an angry boy to one who giggles and does homework. The sister and Pattie don't change but they provide strength and stability for the family. That's another reason the money at the end that Pattie supposedly has doesn't fit the story pattern.

Willow is obsessed with skin conditions and germs. She's also crazy about plants. Along with the library these things give her comfort in a world that she doesn't particularly fit in. I thought Willow had a few too many answers by the end of the book analyzing other people in her life. It felt like the author was fleshing out characters by telling rather than showing. I did like this summing-up side to Willow - especially in the beginning when the observations were connected to her obsessions. I felt a bit like she was diagnosing me. The first three skin conditions she mentions I suffer from. Many people do. I thought it was kind of funny that I'm reading a book and have a blizzard of seborrheic dermatitis in my eyebrows and she's diagnosing people she meets with the same problems. Or worse skin conditions, as in Jairo's case. Can't say I've ever read a character that is quite like Willow. She's unique and fun.

3 Smileys

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