Jordyn has two lives. School, where she gets along fine – people like her well enough and she’s relatively important to the success of the hockey team. She’s a high achiever, but nondescript is her MO. Then there’s home, which she shares with her autistic brother Phillip. The one rule of Jordyn’s existence is that these two worlds never, ever meet. It’s a rule that has consequences. So far it’s already cost her a shot at happiness with hot football player, Alex. They’re still friends, but when he starts dating Leighton, the captain of the hockey team, Jordyn starts to wish she hadn’t stopped them from becoming more. Then Phillip’s school closes, and he is forced to transfer to mainstream high school with Jordyn. It’s her living nightmare. Her carefully constructed, perfectly separate life begins to crumble.
DISCLAIMER: I attempted not to get super personal with this review and totally failed. I am all bias. My brother has autism. He’s less severe than Phillip – he has a much easier time communicating verbally (when he’s calm, anyway), but unless you’re the type of person to know the mileage of your car (or if you have brought him food) then he has no interest in talking to you. He’s really into cars. As I write this, a DVD of the 1992 touring car world championship is likely playing somewhere in my house. That or Ice Road Truckers.
As a result of all this, I approached this book with some pretty intense trepidation. On the rare occasions I read books about disability, specifically autistic characters, they usually make me
- Really angry. I feel like autistic characters are quite often used as props with attributes that read like a checklist of Things Autistic People Do.
- Feel guilty. When I was 8, a well-meaning teacher gave me a book about autism that would more accurately have been titled Everything You Do Wrong, You Terrible Person.
All this is to explain why this book has been sitting on my shelf for several weeks, while I read everything but it.
As it turned out, all my worry was totally unnecessary. How To Say I Love You Out Loud, by Karole Cozzo, is a really great book. It totally made me cry, but not for either of the bad reasons I was expecting.
I liked Jordyn a lot. Often-times as a reader, you can see things more clearly than she can, but not in an annoying way. I really enjoyed watching her identify her self sabotage and eventually even overcome it.
She had a hard time in the early years of school with kids bullying her because of Phillip’s difficulties. She was often cut out of social circles by children too young to understand what they were doing. Sometimes she was left out by parents who had no excuse not to know better.As a result, when her family moves to a new town to be closer to Phillip’s school, Jordyn decides it’ll make her life easier if her new friends don’t know he even exists. She’s decided that her heart can’t take any more judgement. But the thing about secrets, Jordyn quickly learns, is that they have much more far reaching consequences than she would have thought. Her friends are hurt by how closed off she is. They don’t understand why they know so little about a person they see every day.
And then there’s Alex. Perfect Alex. I am not exaggerating. He’s totally hot, sweet , funny and he cares for his mother, who is a wheelchair user as a result of a stroke she had a couple previously. In his spare time he builds parks for disabled children. Does this guy exist in real life? Probably not. Did this limit my enjoyment of him? Are you kidding? Of course not.
(this is why I have such unrealistically high standards for the men in my life. Sigh).
Alex seems like the perfect guy to trust, right? I thought so too. But Jordyn can never be sure. And even when she is, she then has to worry about him judging her for keeping the secret in the first place. The only option is to push him away, and the more she does, the more miserable she becomes.
In defence of Jordyn: It is easy, during many stages of this book, to get a little frustrated with Jordyn. You are totally supposed to. But I just want to say that she’s not being totally unreasonable, because people do get really weird about autism. As an adult, I find a person’s reaction when I first mention my brother a good test of whether or not we will become friends. If they respond with abject terror (which happens way more than you’d think) then it’s unlikely we’re going to be buds. It’s also a really useful way to figure out whether or not a guy is worth dating. I would go as far as to say that inventing an autistic sibling is actually great dating advice.
(Just kidding. Mostly.)
Anyway. Back to the book.
What I loved most about Cozzo’s writing was the total acceptance of Jordyn as she was. Generally speaking, there isn’t someone in your life with a How To book that explains exactly how you deal. Jordyn, like anyone is in her situation, was simply handling it the only way she knew how to. She got pissed off with her mum and frustrated with her brother but that didn’t make her a bad person. Even when, as a reader, I couldn’t agree with her actions, I never felt like Cozzo wanted me to be angry with her. Each of the walls Jordyn had built around herself existed for a reason. When you grow up with a person the world was not designed for, you can end up feeling like it wasn’t designed for you either. It’s a feeling Cozzo does a really good job of exploring.
Cozzo has written a book about the fact that love is hard sometimes. So is opening up or taking a risk. What I took from How To Say I Love You Out Loud in the end is that it’s okay that it’s hard. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to realise that you were doing something wrong, because in the end you can always course-correct. It’s never too late for that.