Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

David Drucker lives with his mom and dad and has an older sister Lauren whom he affectionately calls Miney because "she's always felt like the only thing in a confusing world that belongs to me." Lauren, "smart and cool and beautiful" was the most popular girl in high school, president of her class and homecoming queen.  David, who is a strapping six foot two, has an I.Q. of 168 and knows he's different. His doctor has suggested that he has a "borderline case of Asperger's" but David, who's read the DSM-4 (the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) doesn't believe he meets the criteria for such a label. He admittedly has trouble in social situations, preferring routine and order, but he feels he can be empathetic and he can make eye contact. He's been relentlessly bullied and so he's given up trying to fit in, preferring to be alone.

During lunch hour, David always sits by himself in the school cafeteria.  He's done so for the past 622 days until one day Kit Lowell sits down at his table. David, who's not good at names is tempted to her up in his notebook which he uses to keep track of people, the notebook was his sister Miney's idea, suggested after David was bullied in middle school. Miney felt he was too trusting, and so they made a list of people, dividing them into those trustworthy and those to avoid.

David immediately acknowledges to Kit about her father's death, something that none of her friends will do.  Kit finds David's directness refreshing. She's decided not to sit with her usual table that includes her best friends Annie and Violet and has chosen David's table because she knows she will be left alone. Kit tells David she doesn't want to talk which he respects. Although it's been a month since her dad was killed in a car accident, Kit didn't want to go to school. After arriving late to Mr. Schmidt's physic's class, Kit abruptly leaves without permission. David decides to follow her out, but he does ask to leave. He finds Kit in the concession hut by the bleachers and tells her that he's not following her but wanted to make sure she was okay.

Kit is puzzled by David's concern for her. She doesn't know much about him except that he's awkward, bumps into people alot and wears headphones when he walks around at school. But Kit also remembers that her father suggested she get to know David Drucker, telling her he is an interesting person. And she also notices that beneath his long hair, David is rather cute.

Kit continues to sit with David Drucker at lunch hour. When Kit asks him why he always sits alone, David tells her that he shares nothing in common with the other students other than they are the same age and born in the same town and that many of the students have not been nice to him.Kit tells David that she chose his table because she knew if she asked him to leave her alone he would respect her request.

Kit's friends however are not satisfied to leave her alone and they begin confronting her. But Kit continues to sit with David during lunch. To help her, David takes notes in physics class for Kit which really impresses her. He also reveals he can make a very good chicken tikka. Kit begins to feel David is a sort of "good weird." After school Kit offers David a ride home which he accepts even though he drove his own car to school. After dropping David off at home, Kit goes to the Pizza Palace where her friends, Gabriel, Justine, Annie and Violet hang out. Several other girls from their school also join them and begin questioning Kit about her new friendship with David Drucker. Kit defends spending time with David, telling her friends that he is "pretty interesting".

Meanwhile David's sister Miney returns unexpectedly from school, with purple hair, bloodshot eyes and a new piercing. David tells his sister about his developing friendship with Kit who has sat with David for four days now and who admits that she enjoys talking with him. This leads Miney to advise David that he needs to ask Kit out to study together or work on a school project. And she decides that David needs a makeover, a new haircut and some new clothes besides the khaki pants he always wears.

Kit's life becomes even more complicated when she uncovers a devastating secret her parents have been keeping from her. She is so angry at her mother that she is no longer speaking with her. At the same time she's also asked David to help her figure out how her father was killed in the car accident. As her friends continue to question her ongoing friendship with David, Kit and David's friendship continues to blossom. But will their new friendship survive as they both face having their inner most secrets unexpectedly revealed?

What To Say Next is a sweet, touching story about two teens struggling to find their place in the world. David Drucker, a teen with autism, has given up fitting into the social scene in his high school and is a loner. Kit, very different from David, is part of the in-crowd. But since the death of her dad a month earlier, she's struggling with her own guilt leading her to withdraw socially.

Both David and Kit undergo a personal journey of growth and self-revelation throughout the novel.  For Kit this journey involves confronting the secrets both she and her mother are keeping. At the beginning of the novel, Kit wants her friends to acknowledge the death of her father instead of just skirting around the topic. When her friends remark that she is struggling to cope with "everything" Kit thinks, "I shake off my irrational annoyance at her euphemism. Everything is obviously my dad being dead. Why can't she just say that instead?"

Ironically, despite Kit's desire for her friends to talk about her father's death, Kit herself refuses to publicly talk about it because, as it turns out, she's keeping a big secret regarding her father's death. It is a secret orchestrated by her mother, but which terribly burdens Kit. She withdraws from her friends and seeks shelter at David Drucker's table, a loner whom Kit expects will leave her alone.

However David surprises Kit when he immediately acknowledges what has happened to Kit by stating that her father has died. He "... just said the words right out loud. The unvarnished, ugly truth." Nevertheless the weight of the secret she's carrying around is unbearable and at one point she considers telling her friends the truth about what really happened. "I consider explaining everything to my friends. Finally coming clean. Telling the whole story of this nightmare from beginning to end. But I can't. There are some words we are not allowed to say out loud." 

As Kit's friendship with David blossoms she decides to ask him to help her figure out the physics of her father's car accident and to learn  "...if it could have been stopped. What was the very last second someone should have put their foot on the brake?..."  David agrees to help his new friend , dubbing the effort, The Accident Project. But when he accompanies Kit to the scene of the accident, she flees. Nevertheless, David is persistent as he wants to help Kit come to terms with her father's death. However, his mathematical calculations indicate that Kit's father should not be dead. When he and Kit meet, Kit resolves to tell the truth. "On the way over to McCormacks, I resolved to be brave and  honest. I realize I can't keep going, not like this. My mom wanted us to build and then live in a glass house of lies. But it's time to start throwing rocks..." Kit believes that David will keep her secret. She doesn't stop to think how David might feel when he learns the truth. David with his Asperger's doesnt think about Kit, instead he feels betrayed because Kit asked him to find the truth of her father's accident when she knew it all along.

When the truth about the accident is revealed, Kit is finally able to talk to her friends, opening the door to healing and forgiveness. She is relieved to have the truth come out although she believes David is "the enemy".  One noticeable flaw in Kit is that she never apologizes to David for lying to him and setting him up to solve her father's accident when she knew the truth all along. Instead, she first focuses on David's actions rather than her own.

Besides dealing with her role in her father's car accident Kit must also come to terms with the secret she's learned about her mother. When Kit searches through her father's files she finds a file filled with special memories of his only child. For Kit this is proof that, "Our lives were good. Maybe even perfect." However, Kit makes a shocking discovery about her family and yet another secret her mother has been keeping. This leaves her feeling confused and hurt. However, after a night of partying, drinking and kissing David, Kit wakes up the next morning hungover and filled with regret. She begins to understand how her mother could have made the mistake she did. This realization leads to the beginning of her healing the rift with her mother.

For David his journey is more about confronting the real world and learning to live in it. When Kit comes into his world David discovers the value of friendship. "Here's the thing about making a friend that I didn't understand before I started talking to Kit: They grow your world. Allow for previously inconceivable possibilities." He acknowledges that "Before Kit, I never used the word lonely, though that's exactly what I was."

David has relied heavily on his sister Miney's help. It was her idea for him to keep a notebook to help him keep track of the people in his life. Whenever David experienced difficulties, Miney was always there to help him. She helped David grow his friendship with Kit and was the impetus behind his makeover, his asking Kit out. After his notebook is published on Tumblr, David gradually recovers from his horror and humiliation. When David learns his sister will be leaving soon he realizes he will be fine when she's gone. "The old me would have cried or screamed or begged her to stay. But I'm not the old me anymore. Despite the events of the past seventy hours, I am growing up, getting stronger. I'm miles away from Normal -- I will never live in the same state as Normal, nor do I necessarily want to -- but I'm getting a little closer..."

 But when David reveals Kit's secret and accuses her in front of everyone at the restaurant, this is a problem Miney cannot fix. To David's great distress he learns Miney is on her way back to school. However Miney tells him, "You don't need my help the way you used to." Instead Miney tells him "But look how quickly you figured out what you did wrong. The old you might have not even noticed that Kit was upset. Or might have insisted that she was being overly sensitive. You're getting better at this empathy thing..."

David recognizes that he needs to apologize to Kit and despite being scared he devises an creative and very touching way of apologizing. In a series of sweet but practical notes, he explains to Kit that he has Asperger's, and asks for forgiveness to become friends again. In the end though, David gives Kit "one last gift" that of explaining to her that there was nothing she could have done to save her father. "This wasn't your fault. Mathematically or legally. There is nothing you could have done. So instead of trying to watch it happen differently, why don't you try not to watch it at all?" Kit thinks David is simply being kind but he tells her "the math never lies".  This opens the door for Kit to forgive herself, a big step towards healing.

Buxbaum has crafted a beautiful story about the meaning of friendship, forgiveness and redemption. The real gem of this novel is the main character, David Drucker who is endearing and realistic, with a big heart that makes up for all the difficulties his Asperger's creates.He practices krav maga, copies Newtons third law in Latin "to keep it interesting" and tells Kit that if "you were a radio wave, you'd have your very own frequency." He might not have all the social cues worked out, but his intentions are good. What To Say Next encourages us all to be more empathetic, to believe in second chances and to help one another in our own journeys.

Book Details:

What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
New York: Delacourt Press      2017
292 pp.

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