I knew this should have been a happy thing. Maybe happiness just didn’t feel like how I thought it ought to feel. It certainly seemed a small reward for such a lot of chasing by so many people in so many different times and places. But if Dad seemed to think it was worth chasing as hard as he did, for as long as he did, and in the many different ways that he did, then there must be something to it.
Anna is a thirteen-year-old girl with Autism Spectrum Disorder (she identifies as Asperger's syndrome), we meet her on a bus bound for her mother's house in Scotland. Her father has recently died (under circumstances it takes us a while to learn), and after a brief period in Foster Care, she's on her way to live with her mother—a woman she has had no contact with for over a decade.
It takes no time at all for the reader to see that Mom wasn't ready to take custody—in any sense. Anna's confused by her new reality—as anyone would be, exasperated by ASD. She wanders around the neighborhood meeting people. There's a varied and colorful cast of characters that we're introduced to—of various ages, social levels, professions. Anna's interactions with them tell us plenty about her as well as them all.
Anna's a delightful girl with her own particular way of looking at the world. It's a pleasure to see things through her eyes and watch the way her mind works. The people she surrounds herself with—both by circumstance and choice—are almost as fun and rewarding to read about. For example, her mother learns how to be a mother—actually, she learns how to be Anna's mother—and finds some healing for the circumstances that led to her separation from Anna and her father.
Happiness is the theme—and not a subtle one—of the book. Anna's focus on it is one of the first things we encounter when we meet her and she doesn't let us lose sight of it. She sees a lot of different ways that happiness can be found/expressed, but her goal (something her father taught her) is to find it in all circumstances. This perspective is catching, and her new friends and family start to do it—I think I spent a bit more time looking for it while I read the book, too.
An unexpected highlight for me was the way Guthrie used Christians and Anna's mother's church in this book. This is not Christian Fiction—and bears none of its hallmarks. But it is filled with solid, believing, Church-going people. Not morally perfect, hypocritical or judgmental, or any of the too typical ways that Christians are generally depicted. But people of faith, who've made mistakes, sinned against each other, and have found/are finding restoration—and along the way, are aided by the others in the church. I also liked the church services—the way Anna's mother explains them to her brought a huge smile to my face. There's no preaching to the reader involved, but we get to see faith in action and its effects.
I have two, related, complaints with the book. The first is that the book is just too short—this is really more of a backhanded compliment. I think each member of her extended family could've used more time, more character development. Maybe it's just because I enjoyed spending time with all of them—and it's clear that we only get the highlights of the relationships in the novel. But I think it's a little more. If scenes had been given just a little more space to develop, I think it'd have been a little stronger of a novel.
The second complaint is along the same lines—it was too rushed, too compact. It felt like Guthrie knew where all the plotlines were supposed to resolve and didn't want the book to go beyond a certain page count. So, the material we get in the last 10% of the book feels like it should've been given at least twice (maybe three times) the number of pages.
This is a charming read, full of heart, humor and love. It's not what I typically read—but when I find this kind of book, it makes me happy. I hope this sounds like the compliment it's supposed to be, but Anna feels like it'd be the kind of thing to introduce to your older MG/younger YA reader if you want them to grow up into a Fredrik Backman reader—the same kind of collection of interesting characters, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a heartwarming feel. Guthrie's not in Backman's league—yet—but I can see her getting there. I'd enjoy reading more by her in the future, and in the meantime, I'm glad I got to read this—and recommend it to anyone else.
My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the novel) they provided.