Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The State of Grace, by Rachel Lucas

The State of Grace is a ridiculously charming story about a teenager with Asperger's attempting to navigate being 15, something that's difficult enough at the best of times. Grace has to navigate first romances, perfect little sisters, mum's bitch best friend, absent fathers, not freaking out at school and generally exhausting herself by interacting with other humans and trying her absolute hardest to minimize her difference at school.

“Sometimes I feel like everyone else was handed a copy of the rules and mine got lost.”
Not trying to steal any thunder from the ASD community, but who hasn't felt like that at some time? Part of the reason why I loved this book is that it's just such a good coming of age story- of dealing with all the crap that happens when you're 15 and you're too young to do much about it but mature enough to know that there's nothing you can do; thus, angst and rage.

One of the biggest factors for me in whether or not I will like a contemporary is the voice of the protagonist. It's really hard to write authentic, believable dialogue spoken by teens who conceivably could exist in real life. Not a problem here at all- Grace is such a solid, likable, understandable girl, she's funny and believable and honest on the page in a way that offers readers a real insight into the realities, difficulties and triumphs of being a person with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

I think this is the first time I've read a contemporary novel with a) a girl MC with ASD b) A novel where an ASD character is not using their 'powers' to be some kind of detective and c) An autistic character with ROMANCE. So all kinds of goodness there.

So. 15 year old Grace lives near the sea in North-West of England who lives with her younger but more independent, confident and generally more capable sister Leah, her mum, and technically her dad too but he's often out on adventures being a wildlife cameraman. On his latest jaunt, things in Grace's life have started to come apart at the seams. Her mum has a horrible new best friend, Eve, who is exerting her bad influence in really damaging ways. Leah is falling in with the wrong crowd at school. Grace is being bullied by the usual suspects and is trying really, really, really hard to not let it get to her.

I loved that this book had at its centre a really solid female friendship. Anna has been Grace's best friend since primary school, much to Grace's wonder and surprise and she has been by her side most of her life, despite being clever and pretty and well liked. It's kind of heat breaking how convinced Grace is that Anna deserves better, how inevitable she feels it is that someone more deserving will come and take her away. But Anna is a doll and an absolute Model BFF and this is not a book about a rocky patch in a friendship, it's about exciting first kisses and first romances and sharing it all with Anna because Gabe Kowalski is the most popular boy at school and he is genuinely, definitely into Grace.

One of the book's greatest successes is placing the reader in the head of somebody with ASD. The overwhelming noises and smells, the feelings of inadequacy, not understanding people's meanings, not being able to show that you're listening or trying to find signals in the faces of others. It was a really illuminating reading experience- Grace is frequently frustrated that she cannot express herself well, that everybody else seems to find being human so easy and for her it is an almighty struggle. However, she never feels sorry for herself and she is never a victim. She has her friends, her horse Mabel; therapy and friend, and her interests, just like everyone else. She's really relateable. The book also makes the reader painfully aware of how autistic people are treated, that sort of casual, barely there ableism. People talking about her when she's in the room, that assumption that Grace is inherently a problem, the reason her mum doesn't work. Like I say, it was illuminating and very revealing.

I would absolutely recommend this to literally everyone. Not only is it an eye opener into the world and life experiences of others, but it's a funny, compelling and thoroughly enjoyable story about a wonderful friendship and the thrill and horror of first romances, of trying to get things right, making mistakes and learning life lessons. I honestly think it's one of the best contemporary romances I've read in years.

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