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When a child is sick or suffering, a parent will do anything to cure them or ease their pain. But many illnesses, ailments and disorders are not easy to diagnose, let alone resolve. The spectrum of autism includes many manifestations that are not well understood and are the source of lots of frustrations, as well as many expressions of creativity and individuality.

HARMONY, the latest novel by Carolyn Parkhurst, is centered on a family whose oldest daughter has been given the vague diagnosis of PDD-NOS (persuasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified) and whose behavior is often obsessive and vulgar, yet also imaginative and compelling. The Hammond family eventually decides to take extreme measures to try to create the best life for 13-year-old Tilly and her little sister, 11-year-old Iris. But, despite their very best intentions, their plans go horribly awry.

"...a beautifully written novel, often heart-wrenching and frightening but with more than a few moments of humor."

Over the years, Alexandra Hammond reads every book, article and website she can about autism in order to understand and help Tilly. When she comes across the work of Scott Bean, she is overjoyed as so many of his methods seem to be effective. In Bean, she finds a compassionate ear and a reassuring presence, as well as a comfortable community of other parents. In the summer of 2012, the Hammonds, along with two other families, leave behind their homes, jobs, schools and possessions to come to live with Bean at Camp Harmony in New Hampshire. The idea is to offer week-long intensive programs for families with autistic children, run by Bean and supported by the Hammonds, as well as the Gough and Ruffin families.

Almost immediately the shine comes off the enterprise. The cabins that the families live in are shabby, and their relationship to Bean is undefined. The children, as well as the adults, are expected to work: cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry for the visitors. As June progresses, Bean’s behavior becomes less predictable even as Tilly’s seems to improve. Soon the Hammonds have given over their freedom and some of their parenting responsibilities to Bean, but Tilly and Iris, as recipients of his anger and witness to his lies, begin to question Bean’s motives and abilities. Tension builds, and disaster is swift and violent when Bean’s fragile Camp Harmony is scrutinized and threatened.

HARMONY is mostly narrated by Iris with a precocious, clear and insightful voice. Alexandra narrates shorter chapters recalling her years of doing her best for Tilly, feeling like a failure and isolated. In Alexandra’s chapters, we see how attractive Bean’s techniques and plans were to her and even to her skeptical husband, Josh. A few brief but amazing chapters are written from Tilly’s perspective as well, and in them readers are privy to her unique way of thinking and perhaps unexpected emotional resilience.

While HARMONY is about the lengths parents will go to give a child the best life they can, it is also about how easily we give up control in pursuit of our larger goals. Most interestingly, though, it explores unconditional love, our dreams for ourselves and those we love, and, in the end, it is a celebration of those dreams and possibilities. It is a beautifully written novel, often heart-wrenching and frightening but with more than a few moments of humor. Because the action unfolds so quickly, the pace feels a bit rushed at times and motivations are not fully examined. However, that hardly detracts from the success of this provocative, intelligent and enjoyable story.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 19, 2016

by Carolyn Parkhurst

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399562613
  • ISBN-13: 9780399562617