***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a nice ensemble piece that shows you can build a family from disparate people, as long as there's love and acceptance; but the story is undermined somewhat by the fact that all the actors (even the flawed ones) are already unrelentingly lovable.
Willow Chance is an adopted child (who happens to be a person of color) with the intelligence level of a genius, and a penchant for diagnosing medical conditions. She's not accepted at school, but she has her parents and her garden, a new (Vietnamese-American) teenage friend named Mai, and a blissful life. Her parents die in a car crash and she is taken in temporarily by Mai's family, run by single mom Pattie.
Willow owes her literary legacy to Pollyanna. Even though she experiences a deep depression after her parents' death, her natural optimism and interest in the world inspire everyone she meets to better themselves and even their environment. Jairo Hernandez, the cab driver who has sold himself short, is inspired to go to college again after meeting her. She even possibly saves his life by diagnosing a skin cancer on his neck. Quang-ha develops a renewed interest in school. Dell Duke remains somewhat hapless, but becomes a better person. (Maybe more importantly, he becomes interested in bettering himself.)
Much of the writing was beautiful, and some passages brought tears to my eyes:
"What was the rose before it was a rose?
It was the soil and the sky and the rain and the sun.
And where was the rose once it was gone?
It returned, Mai figured, back to the larger whole that surrounds us all"
I quickly became fond of the characters: of Pattie's frankness and strong love (there are wonderful small moments that define each person, like when Pattie impulsively decides to throw away all bottles of the blue nailpolish that just this moment brought her bad luck); of Quang-ha's believable teenage-boy traits, and his own surprise at his growing interest in science; of Mai's toughness; of Dell's unrelenting mediocrity and self-centeredness (another wonderful small moment: when he realizes being the building rep means he can claim a parking space).
Too much HEA. But am I no longer suited for reading middle-grade plots? Because I thought the happily-ever-after went over the top, specifically in the areas of Pattie getting together with Jairo, Jairo basically winning the lottery, and Pattie turning out to have a very large savings. Which brings me to the subject of...
Pattie's money. This has brought other readers up short, and I agree with them. Why was Pattie making her children live in a garage? I think it might be possible to have this fit in with the pattern of the rest of the book (of people moving out of their comfort zones and fashioning better lives as a result), but with more careful fleshing out of Pattie's personality and circumstance. Maybe Goldberg Sloan meant this: that Pattie didn't know better, having moved from a very poor life in Vietnam to America--didn't know how to save and invest her money, or how to spend carefully. Maybe she has been excessively frugal with her money because she fears poverty, and she wants to be able to help her kids get an education, and she goes overboard. Maybe she saw, from living in Dell's apartment, that there's another way to live, and that she wants to provide more comfort to her children. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn't quite work, because Goldberg Sloan doesn't delve enough into Pattie's mind for us to understand her motivation. Plus, when Pattie makes the decision to buy the apartment building, she suddenly seems much savvier than a confused immigrant with a mattress full of cash.
But more than this, was the "happily ever after" dependent on money? Is that the message we should want from a story that has been, until now, about how love and commitment to each other is what has "saved" Willow in her bereavement, and nudged the other five characters out of their ruts?
Too grown up. There's a delicate line authors have to walk when they make an exceptionally intelligent--but very young--character. There were many moments when Willow seemed not just smart, but wise beyond her years, traits that I don't believe would go hand-in-hand.
For instance, Willow says, "Quang-ha is always the one who gives the unspoken a voice. He says: 'Nothing's going to grow here.'"
And about the passengers flying overhead on a plane:
"Do they feel a girl on the steps trying to make sense of the world?
I seriously doubt it.
Who wants a seat at my pity party?"
Is "pity party" an expression a naive, bookish girl would use?
"Sadhu Kumar is sort of an angry guy. I think he might have had a lot of disappointment in his life. It can turn a person bitter.
I wonder if that's happening to me.
Nothing's worse than a sour kid. You should save that for later. When you are old, and it hurts just to get up from a chair, you have a reason to have a permanently pinched face."
Would a child know that nothing is worse than a sour child? Or that disappointment in life leads to anger? Would a twelve-year-old with no grandparents think about the ravages of age on joints?
Telling us the point. Goldberg Sloan also committed the grave sin of not trusting us to unpack the themes ourselves. I was disappointed with the whole chapter in which Willow says goodbye to Pattie, Mai, Quang-ha, Dell, and Cheddar before the hearing. Willlow's voice suddenly becomes removed from her own situation, and nearly didactic, telling us exactly what we're supposed to glean from this moment.
"That's the thing about time. A second can feel like forever if what follows is heartbreak"
[To Mai:] "You don't have to be there. You're supposed to be in school. I'm ready for this now. I'm stronger."
"I've got to get out of here before there is too much drama....[Mai is] always the toughest person in the room, but with me leaving her armor cracks."
"I hear Mai heading out of the room, moving down the hallway. She can't take it."
"And then there is Dell. Will he go back to putting things in closets? Will he return to staring out the window and waiting for his life to begin? Will Pattie keep working so hard?"
"I realize now that I'm worrying about all of them. It's better than worrying about myself. This is one of the secrets that I have learned in the last few months. When you care about other people, it takes the spotlight off your own drama."
Why the cancer diagnosis? Why does Willow's mom have breast cancer? What does it mean for the story? Is it merely a plot device to make Willow's otherwise perfect father make the small driving error that kills him and his wife? We're left to wonder whether Willow will find out about the diagnosis later, when she reads the autopsy report, but how does that help us? Similarly, why does Jairo have skin cancer? In a short-term plot sense, it's so that Willow can be his "angel" and help him to better his life, and cause him to drop everything whenever she needs a ride. But how does it tie in with the cancer diagnosis of her mother, and why haven't we heard about Jairo's pathology report by the end of the story?
Willow is too satisfactory. In the beginning, Willow genuinely seemed to be on the spectrum of Asperger syndrome, or at the very least to have an obsessive behavior of counting by 7s and trying to diagnose medical conditions of strangers. It's what makes her parents so special: they have loved her, nurtured her, and accepted her entirely for who she is, despite her differences (which we are to presume are odd enough that she might not have had such a life under another family's roof). But as the story progresses, Willow's empathy and her understanding of the way the adult world works are clearly both high-level (to be fair, some of this is due to growth on her part, and pushing past her comfort zone, but not all of it). It made the decision for Mai and Pattie to love her and foster her sort of simple. It made becoming accepted by Quang-ha feel inevitable. I wanted to see that Willow was imperfect, and that her new family came to love her despite her flaws. Unfortunately, she was basically flawless. Wearing khaki pants and a shirt don't count!
Only I would worry about this. No mention is made of the house she grew up in (which I was under the impression her parents owned), or the value of all their possessions. They had no savings, but did their material property add up to nothing after the bills were paid?