The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily
I loved this book but fair warning, I have never been so stressed out by reading a novel in my life. This book is written from the point of view of Lily, and is told in first-person, past tense. Lily is a teenager who has very severe ADHD. I have never been more worried about a character – maybe because I’m the mom of a teenage girl so I’m primed to worry, maybe because my anxiety has been sky high lately, or maybe just because Lily’s voice is so powerful that it’s impossible not to feel that she’s real and that her disasters have meaning. I’ve been told by teachers (recently) that grades aren’t everything, but at one point when Lily got a bad grade I put my head in my hands and cried. At the same time, I loved this book and wanted to read it over and over again because the characters are so well done.
Lily is in class one day when she notices that the handle of the divider that separates her classroom from the adjacent classroom is moving. She cannot resist messing with the moving shiny abject, and the wall (it’s one of those folding temporary walls) breaks. In the office, Lily discovers that Abelard was the one on the other side of the wall moving the door handle. He is on the autism spectrum, and he was upset because the handle wasn’t moving smoothly (Abelard says it needed oil). Lily and Abelard had gone to kindergarten together and Lily was always fond of him because when she accidentally hit him with her metal lunchbox and scarred him (slightly) for life he didn’t tell on her. Lily is always accidentally breaking things, and Abelard likes fixing things.
When they start texting each other, they discover that they have something else in common. They both like the classics, and have both read The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Once they establish that, they are able to talk to each other almost entirely in Abelard and Heloise quotes. As they get more comfortable with each other they use their own words more, but during stress or conflict, they return to their fictional counterparts to communicate.
The main focus of the story is Lily and her struggles at school and elsewhere. She resents her mom for trying to “fix” her, but as she matures through the course of the novel she develops a more realistic sense of what her mom is trying to do and where her mom is coming from. She hates the side effects of medication. She has plans to run away to find her father, who left the family many years prior. She has a best friend, but the best friend has a new boyfriend and Lily feels awkward around them. When Lily is presented with a possible experimental treatment for ADHD, she has to decide whether or not to go for it, which causes her to re-evaluate her personality and her disability.
The plotline involving the treatment could have been awful, but I was encouraged by the fact that the author also has ADHD, and the fact that Lily’s doctor has great rapport with her and promises that any treatment might stabilize enough of her ADHD for her to be able to function more effectively, but won’t mute her personality or stop her from getting exciting ideas or prevent her from being able to hyperfocus. We are left on a cliffhanger because we never find out how the treatment went, a fact that I know drove some readers up the wall. We also never find out about Lily and Abelard’s long term future, although we do see them work through issues of separation (he is accepted to a college program in another state). I found the latter to be appropriate for a YA. It’s a Happy For Now.
I loved the romance between Lily and Abelard, but I would have liked more balance. We never get to hear Abelard’s inner thoughts so he’s something of a mystery. I like the creative and mutually respectful ways Lily and Abelard work around each other’s conditions. I also like the mix of sweetness, pathos, and humor. Here’s Abelard’s response to Lily referring to herself as having a “broken brain”:
“Mathematicians use fractals to model things that appear to be chaotic but are actually accumulations of complex patterns. Fractured things, not broken because broken implies that there is a normal, when mathematically there isn’t. Normal would mean easily predictable – like a salt crystal. Fractured things like snowflakes and mountain ranges are more geometrically interesting, and require more complex modeling.”
“Abelard,” I said, forgetting that I was not supposed to interrupt, “are you calling me a special little snowflake?”
Abelard closed his eyes. He’d thought about this, arranged what he’s planned to say in great detail, and all I could do was throw him off his game. And yet, I couldn’t help it. I wanted to ask him a hundred questions. I wanted to pull the goggles off his head and run my hands through his hair. This was more than I’d heard him talk the entire time I’d known him. He was wearing a heather green ringer T-shirt that looked insanely soft, bunny-marshmallow-cloud soft, and I wanted to run my hand over his chest and find out, Hard to be still and quiet at the same time. I leaned closer.
“Yes,” Abelard said finally. “You are a fractured snowflake, a pattern repeated in infinite detail in a world full of salt crystals. You’re not broken-you’re perfect.”
There were so many things I loved in this book. I loved Lily’s relationship with her little sister, I loved the doctor, I loved how hard Lily works to think about what’s good for Abelard in an unselfish way. I loved the fact that the story was so involving that I cried over Lily’s geography project. I loved Abelard’s parents. I wanted to hear more about their classmate, Richard Hernandez, the artist. I loved how the romance helped both Abelard and Lily mature as people. It’s a lovely book. But maybe don’t read it during moments of peak anxiety, like I did. That bit with the geography grade was rough.
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