Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: Counting by 7s

Want to tap the depths of human emotion? Plumb a subject like death and loss. From the outset of this book, I knew it was going to tug at my heart strings. Indeed, by the end I was sniffling and holding back tears. There is something so moving about a story of deep loss and the human connection that brings healing.

Willow Chance is an oddball. A twelve-year-old girl who doesn't fit in at her middle school. A genius charged with cheating when she aces a standardized exam in 17 minutes. A lover of plants, the color red, and the number seven. Willow Chance doesn't stand a chance in an ordinary middle school setting.

Therefore, it is no surprise when she is sent to visit a counselor to work on her social skills and address some of the missing spokes in her life. The counselor is, himself, a piece of work. Categorizing his clientele into groups of misfits, oddballs, lone wolfs, weirdos, geniuses, dictators, and mutants, Dell Duke doesn't really know how to meet the needs of these individuals or how to take care of himself, for that matter.

When Willow and Dell cross paths with Mai and her delinquent brother, Quang-ha, things begin to get interesting. When Willow's parents die in an accident, things begin to get hard. Mai, sensing the girl's need, urges her mother to take on temporary guardianship to keep Willow out of the foster system. But Mai and Quang-ha and their Vietnamese mother don't live an ordinary life. They live in a garage and use a bathroom in the mother's nail salon. But Willow is resilient and, despite being odd, she is also a very nurturing individual.

As Willow observes about the curse of labels, "In my opinion it's not really a great idea to see people as one thing. Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation. We are all imperfect genetic stew." Willow moves through her life in a daze, yet manages to not only bring people together, but also make those individuals better than they were.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has created a unique character and fleshed her out with a distinct voice. The supporting characters are equally interesting. The story moves steadily to a mostly-satisfying and redemptive conclusion.

My primary difficulty was with the shifting point of view. If it had been evenly structured, it would have felt smoother, but at times we are hearing from Willow's perspective and then, without warning or designation, we are above the story reading about the other characters' internal thoughts and feelings. So it was kind of a mix of first-person and third-person omniscient. Moreover, I wasn't thrilled with the simplified, too-tidy ending (happily-ever-after when money, unknown to this point, materializes, and relationships solidify to create the exact world Willow wants and needs). Still, these things didn't detract from the power of the story. I would still consider it a good book, worth the meager time investment it requires.

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