A mother’s worst nightmare: That’s what Anna thinks she might be facing at the beginning of Donna Levin’s spellbinding novel There’s More Than One Way Home. It’s 2004 and Anna has accompanied her Autistic son, Jack, as a class chaperone on a field trip to Minotaur Island near San Francisco. When four children—Jack among them—turn up missing, Anna fears the worst.
Everyone pulls together to comb the island, and the boys are found. One is dead after all, but to Anna’s guilty relief, it is not her Jack. Thus begins a mother’s second worst nightmare, as Jack is accused of murder. The story unfolds from there: Jack’s loving but authoritarian father’s hands are tied with respect to the case, since he is the district attorney and thus has a conflict of interest. Free-spirited Doctor Valentine helps keep Jack out of the crushing institutionalization of the combined penal and psychiatric systems, while flirting with Anna behind her husband’s back. And Anna is caught in the middle of everything, facing choices not unlike those of her namesake in Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina.
Can Jack be saved from a life of imprisonment? Can Jack’s father, Alex, get re-elected to his position in the midst of such a public scandal? Will Anna follow her head and stay with Alex, or follow her heart with sensitive and seductive Dr. Valentine—Val, as he asks everyone to call him? All these questions are explored in the novel’s pages, and primarily the story focuses on Anna.
There were things I loved about this novel and things that made me rather uncomfortable about it. Before I elaborate, I should note that I don’t think I am the book’s target reader. This was a novel clearly written about, and for, non-autistic mothers of Autistic children. As an Autistic adult who has not raised a child, my view of the story might be slightly different from that of the intended reader. Do I think the mother of an Autistic child will enjoy this novel? Oh, definitely yes. But I hope potential readers will find value in my insights about the novel as well.
First off, I did greatly enjoy the novel. It is well-written and pulled me right into the story straight away. I was eager to find out what would happen next at every moment, and all the characters were well-developed, with blessings and flaws, quirks and agendas. I felt like I was reading about real people, not characters … although this leads me to my first complaint about the story: Jack himself was not a well-developed character.
Jack felt more like a plot point to me than a person. I knew some of his preferences and fears, and his speech pattern made it always clear when he was speaking. But he never felt like a full person to me like Anna, Alex, or Val did. It wasn’t just because Jack wasn’t the protagonist, because I felt more full-roundedness from Alex, whose presence in the story was much like his presence in his home: brief appearances here and there, but mostly disengaged from the action and the emotions of the novel. Yet even his character felt more real to me than Jack’s. Although the novel was about Anna and her character was very well developed, I was disappointed to feel like Jack was more of a plot device.
Despite Jack’s less-articulated character, Anna very clearly loves Jack, and I loved that about the novel. Her love is depicted as complex and questioning, but very strong. Opening on a crisis gives us a chance to see Anna regretting being irritated with some of Jack’s autistic traits, and resolving to be more accepting and more appreciative. Throughout the novel, Anna moves back and forth between being bothered by Jack’s autism and being accepting of it. While some might expect me to dislike that, since I write so much about autism acceptance, actually I was delighted by the depiction of Anna’s struggles with autism acceptance because it made her feel so much more real to me.
Anna has a great voice as story narrator. She is extremely well-educated and regularly makes references to literature and pop culture. Not only is she smart, but she’s snarky, making her perspective on events lively and entertaining. There was one point, however, where I felt like she crossed a line with her zesty sense of humor, leaving me feeling cold and uncomfortable. “I hadn’t left him with a sitter for an evening the first six months,” Anna tells us readers, “but by then I was sympathizing with Andrea Yates.”
I understand that Anna’s character is trying to be darkly humorous with that comment, but it went too far into darkness for my tastes. Joking about murdering one’s children is already in very poor taste. But when the child in question is also autistic? That goes far beyond the pale. An average of 80 disabled people per year, many of them autistic, are killed by parents of caregivers. So often, society’s response is to shrug and say how understandable it is that a parent would want to be rid of such a burden. Filicide is an ongoing and very painful issue in autism communities and even a work of fiction has certain political obligations to the demographic it portrays. While I loved Levin’s book overall, this one sentence weighed heavily on my heart when I read it. I can forgive Jack being less developed than other characters, but it’s not so easy for me to shrug off Anna’s identification with a woman who murdered her five children.
Other than that gruesome note, I do recommend There’s More Than One Way Home to readers. Anna felt like a clever, chatty friend, and I genuinely cared about her decisions and the repercussions of those choices. Jack was lively and lovable. Levin’s villains had humanity, and her heroes had feet of clay. Overall, I feel she rose to the challenge of writing a story with an autistic major character and her storytelling skills had me turning page after page, late into the night. Readers, particularly those with autistic children of their own, will find a friend in Anna Kagen—someone who’s been down the same path, with her wit and humor intact.