The Short Version: Willow Chance is a genius. Off-the-charts smart. Her adopted parents indulge her quirks and love her for them, although her schoolmates are less inclined to be so welcoming. After she’s accused of cheating on a test, she’s sent to a counselor (Dale) who quickly learns just how special she is – but all of this is thrown into overdrive when her parents die in a car accident and she’s left an orphan. This is the story of how she finds a new family.
The Review: I feel little shame in saying that this is one of those books that I just grabbed in the initial blurry rush of the BEA this year. I knew nothing about it, although the cover was eye-catching enough and there was a quote from Maria Semple on the back – good enough to stay in my bag until I got home (unlike, I have to admit, several other books). I’m also not one to pick up YA lit unless it’s something that’s got an added boost – I’m talking it’s a new hot fantasy series or an author I know and love or even just that it’s being John-Green-style lauded. So this felt securely outside my wheelhouse.
Interestingly, as I was reading, I started to wonder: how often do we see a character, a main character, who is not afflicted with a disease or disorder but is, instead, just so smart that she has trouble blending in with her age group? Stylistically, there are moments here that feel like they’re in the Curious Incident… vein – I wondered, despite the early statement of being super-smart, if Willow was “on the spectrum”, as they say. She felt of a theme with Christopher and Aspergers felt right – but she’s just a genius. So what does that say about a) ‘affected’ child narrators in the present day and also b) how we perceive adolescent learning difficulties? I was in a gifted class from first grade and have known many, many wildly intelligent individuals – but I’ve never seen someone quite like Willow. And it doesn’t really get addressed in the course of the novel other than that she sort of normalizes, drops the tics of counting by 7s and believing in lucky red and so on.
The plot itself is pretty moderately predictable – it’s a tearjerker, to be sure, and will undoubtedly make a terrific Disney Channel or Lifetime movie. But the author does a terrific job of slightly subverting the “normal” here. Things might be “predictable”, sure, but they’re also not exactly what you were predicting. That alone keeps things feeling a little more interesting than I initially expected. Also, the characters feel engaging enough to bring us in – which is what’s most important when the plot is relatively perfunctory. Willow is a delightful narrator, the Asian family she befriends full of lovely quirks that transcend any initial stereotypes you may expect, and the two older men who she befriends – Dale and the taxi driver – are real, flawed human beings. It’s nice to see them all come together and one sequence in particular involving the intense creation of a garden should bring a smile to any reader’s face.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. While it doesn’t really rise above being an ordinary young adult novel about dealing with grief and the resiliency of the human spirit, it also doesn’t thuddingly drag along the weight of the clichés of that genre. Instead, it keeps things tripping along and, for a younger reader, may indeed provide the ‘fresh’ and original take that an older eye can’t ever experience for a second time. It doesn’t transcend, like Curious Incident or The Fault in Our Stars – but it certainly rises above the middle of the pack.