When My Heart Joins the Thousand – A. J. Steiger (ARC Review)

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TITLE: When My Heart Joins the Thousand

AUTHOR: A. J. Steiger

RELEASES: February 6th, 2018; HarperTeen

GENRE: Contemporary

AGE RANGE: YA

SYNOPSIS: Alvie Fitz doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t care. She’s spent years swallowing meds and bad advice from doctors and social workers. If she can make it to her eighteenth birthday without any major mishaps, she’ll be legally emancipated. Free. But if she fails, she’ll become a ward of the state and be sent back to the group home.

All she wants is to be left alone to spend time with her friend, Chance, the one-winged hawk at the zoo where she works. She can bide her time with him until her emancipation. Humans are overrated anyway. Then she meets Stanley, a boy who might be even stranger than she is—a boy who walks with a cane, who turns up every day with a new injury, whose body seems as fragile as glass. Without even meaning to, she finds herself getting close to him. But Alvie remembers what happened to the last person she truly cared about.

Her past stalks her with every step, and it has sharp teeth. But if she can find the strength to face the enemy inside her, maybe she’ll have a chance at happiness after all.

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I want to preface this review by saying that I am not autistic, not do I suffer from the disability that Stanley suffers from, and I can only speak as an outsider looking in; however, any and all own-voice opinions and reviews would be welcomed and I would be happy to boost your review if you DM me or drop me a comment!

Why did everyone act like it was my fault when the other kids bullied me? Why was I always the one who had to change?

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Going into a book with a romance between an autistic MC and her disabled love interest is the sort of thing that makes me feel very wary – will it be good, authentic rep? Will these characters be painted positively? Will I find myself knee-deep in tropes and cheap shots? Again, while I can’t speak from experience, I found myself feeling really pleased by the rep in this book and the way issues were handled. There were so many potential tropes that the author cleanly subverted, and I was so invested in this story and these characters that I genuinely did not want it to end.

Happiness is not a priority. Survival is. Staying sane is. Pointing out that I’m not happy is like pointing out to a starving homeless man that he doesn’t have a sensible retirement plan. It might be true, but it’s entirely beside the point.

As a child, Alvie was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and was told that she had to “get better”, or she would never get anywhere in life. Now, she’s 17 years old and determined to prove the world wrong, and wow, is she fierce. Her commitment to taking care of herself would be noble enough in any teen, but for her, the stakes are so much higher, and her fear of being put into a group home broke my heart. In fact, it was the very first thing in this story that was eye-opening for me: empathizing with the thought that someone could be threatened with having their freedoms taken away from them, just because they don’t interact with the world in what we’ve deemed as “socially acceptable”.

Technically my condition doesn’t even exist anymore; if I ever go back to the doctor, they’ll presumably have to find some other label to stick on me. The specific words don’t matter. I’ll always be this way.

Despite the fact that so much of the story is heavy, focusing on Alvie’s determination to simply survive through each day, her commentary on the world around her is refreshing and, often, really mood-lifting. She loves animals dearly and has some particularly wide words on nature as a whole, but also, she manages to point out how people, in their day-to-day lives, do so many strange or unnecessary things – whose authority was it to deem them as “normal”?

The idea that autistic people don’t feel compassion is just an ugly stereotype, but it’s a viewpoint I’ve encountered even from some professionals, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

More than anything, though, I loved how kind Alvie is. She is so concerned with the world around her, and though she doesn’t always know how to express them, her intentions are always in the right place. Especially when she meets Stanley, the young man with the cane who comes to visit her park everyday. As she grows to know and care for him, Alvie cares more about his well-being than anything else, and she blooms into this incredibly loving and nurturing young woman, even when it means sacrificing her own happiness.

Nothing about me is easy.

If you asked me to choose who I loved more between Alvie and Stanley, to be honest, I don’t think I could. He matches Alvie’s compassion, but he’s terrified of not being “enough” – of being unable to protect her, or to be her equal, due to his own disability and mental health. Not only does he suffer from a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta – or, as he says, “a fancy way of saying my bones break easily” – but we also learn that familial abuse has given him terrible PTSD. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but it leads me to my next point:

Does he assume that just because I’m different, I’m incapable of having a sexual relationship with anyone? That I’m unable even to feel desire?

This story focuses on an incredible amount of sex, and the way that it is handled made me want to cry tears of joy, because it is absolutely the kind of rep that we need in YA/NA books. There is a tremendous amount of talk surrounding consent (especially due to Alvie’s touch aversions and sensitivity to stimulus), and the characters are unafraid to sit down and talk about what is or isn’t comfortable for them. There’s a lot of sex positivity regarding one night stands and casual sex, but there’s also mention of how emotional sex can be between two individuals who care deeply for one another.

Both characters are virgins, and there are conversations about how terrifying that first time can be, or how toxic masculinity affects young men who don’t have sex immediately after puberty. There’s just so much important content about sex in this book, including the fact that, in this m/f couple, the guy is the one who’s “not ready”, and the girl is the one who has to tamp down her carnal desires and be patient. I just loved their whole relationship so much, for so many reasons, that I couldn’t even list them all here.

“When the ones who hurt you are the people who love you most… no one ever tells you how you’re supposed to deal with that.”

Finally, the last major topic Steiger addresses: abuse, in many different forms, as well as the guilt that can come with being an autistic or disabled individual with loved ones who don’t share your struggles. There is a lot of talk about feeling like a burden, or feeling “not good enough”, and Alvie shares a few flashbacks to painful moments and things her mother said to her, as well as an incredibly traumatic experience her mother put her through as a preteen. Despite all of these focuses on the negative outcomes of Alvie and Stanley’s respective family problems, the theme throughout the book remains the same: it should never be an autistic, mentally ill, or disabled person’s responsibility to feel guilty, useless, or broken. Instead, it should be society’s responsibility to learn how to offer compassion, empathy, accessibility, and understanding.

When My Heart Joins the Thousand isn’t your typical contemporary, and these aren’t your typical YA characters. This story is so unique, and so precious, and so heavy, and so special. I am so, so happy to have had the opportunity to read it, and I sincerely hope that Steiger writes more important work like this in the future.

Content warnings: ableism, PTSD, mental illness, assault, suicide, abuse, homophobia.

All quotes are taken from an unfinished ARC and may differ from the finished product. Thank you so much to HarperTeen for granted me this ARC in exchange for my honest review.

5flakes

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Just a 26-year-old trying to juggle motherhood, grad school, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

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