Thursday, October 09, 2008

Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0061452955
ISBN-13: 978-0061452956

Olivia refuses to allow Georgia Boy to be buried. The gerbil is stiff, dead that long, but little Olivia Bean can't quite register the idea of death. She has a learning disorder known as NLD (nonverbal learning disability, causing her to operate on a very literal level), but come to think of it ... most of us have trouble understanding death.

And so we are introduced, beginning with Olivia, to the cast of characters in Tish Cohen's Inside Out Girl. They are not so very unlike the characters in our own lives, our own families or the families of our friends. The circumstances that tangle and untangle around them are a variation on many of today's typical families. Yes, there is the divorce. And the second chance. Two families patched together with two single parents at the helm, Rachel and Len, each with their own children, trying to make things work again.

Olivia, with a disability that translates into wearing her emotional "insides" on her outside - thus the title - is really the part of the iceberg that presses its tip above water level into bright exposure. She is the inside of all of us. Only Olivia isn't any good at wearing masks ... like most of us do. She is who she is, and so she is all of us in our most tender, tucked-away insides: vulnerable, open-hearted, eager to love and be loved, eager to belong. There is a wonderful innocence and naivete about this child that makes us ache to be more real. More like her. Hearts open to life again. Even as we can also identify (and wish we didn't) with the other children in this blended family who resist being associated with "the least popular girl in school," who hasn't a clue about how to be "cool."

Inside Out Girl is a story about two broken families taking a chance at being one family. Who says it has to be less than the original? The relationship that we see develop between the parents, Rachel and Len, is built on a learning from the past. Len, Rachel observes, is all that ex David was not. David was a bit obsessive-compulsive, too neat for comfort, a bit of a dandy. He "diddled" female colleagues while keeping the creases in his trousers straight. Len, perhaps by some influence from his daughter, Olivia, is more "inside out." He has compassion, he has heart, he is and understands imperfection. And Rachel, to him, is a new hope at making the broken places in him whole again.

The rest of the cast, a crew of lively teens and their school pals, with explorations of contemporary parenting issues (Rachel is an editor for Perfect Parenting magazine, which adds a note of irony and humor to her less than perfect parenting skills), brings the story neatly into our familiar living rooms. Those of us who are parents will have dealt with at least a handful of the issues Cohen explores in this family. Quite like home.

Which isn't to say this is an easy ride. Here we see the pain of social isolation (and not just among the children), of bullying (and not just between children), of giving in to peer pressure (and not just between children). Cohen deftly balances the common with the uncommon, plays on heartstrings without sounding a violin of melodrama. If the disability discussed here is less known, although not so very different from, autism, it serves to make the reader aware of how buried we can become in social norms, the pressures to not stand out from the crowd, or to stop taking the risks required to find a more lasting happiness. While this may not be a literary classic to withstand time, it does capture this moment in time, our contemporary everyday, and perhaps in that accomplishes a moment of warming sunlight. Yes, Olivia, we do all have hearts. Even if we tuck them safely away so much of the time. This little girl helps us see that we all struggle with some bit of disability in our life-worn hearts.

Tish Cohen was interviewed in the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, fall issue 2008, in which she talks about this novel as well as her other work, wearing a little of her own inside out. The interview gives further insight into both author and novel.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

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