“HARMONY,” BY CAROLYN PARKHURST
PUBLISHER: PAMELA DORMAN BOOKS; AUGUST 2, 2016
Synopsis: How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.
Some of my readers know from my bio or our conversations that I was a Special Education teacher for many, many years. What you probably do not know that my passion and concentration for most of my teaching career was students having emotional and behavioral disabilities (called different things in different states), which means when a child was considered “somewhere on the spectrum,” that typically meant that they were in classes that I taught and/or I was assigned as their case manager. Why am I telling you all of this? Basically, that is why I was so interested in “Harmony” when I saw that it was available for review and I can think of about 50 parents from my teaching career that I think would really relate to the parents in this novel.
“Harmony” tells the story of Tilly Hammond, a 13-year-old that has been diagnosed with a million things throughout her childhood, eventually determined as “somewhere on the spectrum of autism.” The novel is narrated by Tilly’s 11-year-old sister Iris, and their mother Alexandra. Tilly was reading and doing complex math problems as a toddler, but has struggled with social skills resulting in tantrums, inappropriate conversations, and inappropriate language. Tilly is removed from school after school, even a school specifically for students with special needs. Alexandra’s husband the girls’ father, Josh, is a bit more relaxed about their lives with Tilly, but their marriage is frequently strained because of the stress. Like any frustrated, concerned parent would do, Alexandra seeks answers and assistance on how to help Tilly and to try to regain control of their family.
This leads Alexandra to Scott Bean. Scott provides workshops and meets with families in order to address behavior problems in children, and Alexandra quickly believes that he could be the solution to their problems. Alexandra assists Scott in establishing Camp Harmony, a place for families to visit, live, and work together in order to help their children with their social and emotional disabilities. As things continue to spiral out of control for the Hammond family, they come to the conclusion that it would be best for their family to join Scott and two other families to live and work at Camp Harmony. Yes, I’m sure you’re already screaming, “cult,” but initially, it seems like a happy and healthy lifestyle of working together for the benefit of everyone, all tucked into the woods of New Hampshire. Quickly after their arrival, and as guest families begin to arrive each week, the real Scott Bean begins shining through.
Carolyn Parkhurst has written such an incredibly honest and candid look at a family desperate for change, desperate for hope, and truly out of ideas. Most of Alexandra’s narrated sections of the novel are prior to going to Camp Harmony, during which you come to know a mother just barely clinging to a life raft. Alexandra absolutely loves both of her daughters but often appears hopeless and worried. In addition to raising a teenage girl considered “somewhere on the spectrum,” she also struggles to help Iris. Iris is two years younger than Tilly, but feels like the big sister, and is often treated as if she were. There is a difficult balance in families such as this and it’s critical to not only nurture and care for the special needs child, but to remember the needs of the “normal child,” or “NT” as Alexandra says in the novel. So during these flashbacks from Alexandra, the reader comes to understand how they got to Camp Harmony how desperately they needed hope in helping their family.
Thinking back over the novel, the reader does see improvement in not only Tilly but also the other children with special needs. Yes, there are times when they do incredibly inappropriate and horrifying things, but the structure and the rules appeared to be helpful reducing direct outbursts and improvements concerning respect. There are some tense moments between Scott and Josh from the start, but it’s the children that are first exposed to other side of Scott Bean, leading to a suspenseful ride of troubling and sad events.
There are some moments in this novel that made me laugh out loud, although I probably wasn’t supposed to do that, but I just kept being reminded of so many situations with students where you are completely at a loss of how to react to things that they may say or do. “Harmony” was not only an interesting and enjoyable novel but there is a great deal of suspense that will have you on the edge of your seat. Although laced with tragedy, it demonstrates that we can take those unexpected and life-changing circumstances and try to make something positive out of it. This is a thoughtful novel that is a must-read regardless if you are a parent of a special needs child or not. This is about all of us and our hope for our lives to be happy, healthy, and prosperous.
Want to learn more about the author? Visit Carolyn Parkhurst’s web page.
*Disclaimer: I received a copy of this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.