When My Heart Joins the Thousandby A.J. Steiger Published 06 Feb 2018
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Obviously I’m not what most people would describe as happy. But that has nothing to do with anything. Happiness is not a priority. Survival is.
Alvie Fitz doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t care. She’s spent years swallowing meds and bad advice from doctors and social workers. Adjust, adapt. Pretend to be normal. It sounds so easy.
If she can make it to her eighteenth birthday without any major mishaps, she’ll be legally emancipated. Free. But if she fails, she’ll become a ward of the state and be sent back to the group home.
All she wants is to be left alone to spend time with her friend, Chance, the one-winged hawk at the zoo where she works. She can bide her time with him until her emancipation. Humans are overrated anyway. Then she meets Stanley, a boy who might be even stranger than she is—a boy who walks with a cane, who turns up every day with a new injury, whose body seems as fragile as glass. Without even meaning to, she finds herself getting close to him. But Alvie remembers what happened to the last person she truly cared about.
Her past stalks her with every step, and it has sharp teeth. But if she can find the strength to face the enemy inside her, maybe she’ll have a chance at happiness after all.
"When My Heart Joins the Thousand" Reviews
I want to preface this review by saying that I am not autistic, not do I suffer from the disability that Stanley suffers from, and I can only speak as an outsider looking in; however, any and all own-voice opinions and reviews would be welcomed and I would be happy to boost your review if you DM me or drop me a comment!
Why did everyone act like it was my fault when the other kids bullied me? Why was I always the one who had to change?
Going into a book with a romance between an autistic MC and her disabled love interest is the sort of thing that makes me feel very wary – will it be good, authentic rep? Will these characters be painted positively? Will I find myself knee-deep in tropes and cheap shots? Again, while I can’t speak from experience, I found myself feeling really pleased by the rep in this book and the way issues were handled. There were so many potential tropes that the author cleanly subverted, and I was so invested in this story and these characters that I genuinely did not want it to end.
Happiness is not a priority. Survival is. Staying sane is. Pointing out that I’m not happy is like pointing out to a starving homeless man that he doesn’t have a sensible retirement plan. It might be true, but it’s entirely beside the point.
As a child, Alvie was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and was told that she had to “get better”, or she would never get anywhere in life. Now, she’s 17 years old and determined to prove the world wrong, and wow, is she fierce. Her commitment to taking care of herself would be noble enough in any teen, but for her, the stakes are so much higher, and her fear of being put into a group home broke my heart. In fact, it was the very first thing in this story that was eye-opening for me: empathizing with the thought that someone could be threatened with having their freedoms taken away from them, just because they don’t interact with the world in what we’ve deemed as “socially acceptable”.
Technically my condition doesn’t even exist anymore; if I ever go back to the doctor, they’ll presumably have to find some other label to stick on me. The specific words don’t matter. I’ll always be this way.
Despite the fact that so much of the story is heavy, focusing on Alvie’s determination to simply survive through each day, her commentary on the world around her is refreshing and, often, really mood-lifting. She loves animals dearly and has some particularly wide words on nature as a whole, but also, she manages to point out how people, in their day-to-day lives, do so many strange or unnecessary things – whose authority was it to deem them as “normal”?
The idea that autistic people don’t feel compassion is just an ugly stereotype, but it’s a viewpoint I’ve encountered even from some professionals, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.
More than anything, though, I loved how kind Alvie is. She is so concerned with the world around her, and though she doesn’t always know how to express them, her intentions are always in the right place. Especially when she meets Stanley, the young man with the cane who comes to visit her park everyday. As she grows to know and care for him, Alvie cares more about his well-being than anything else, and she blooms into this incredibly loving and nurturing young woman, even when it means sacrificing her own happiness.
Nothing about me is easy.
If you asked me to choose who I loved more between Alvie and Stanley, to be honest, I don’t think I could. He matches Alvie’s compassion, but he’s terrified of not being “enough” – of being unable to protect her, or to be her equal, due to his own disability and mental health. Not only does he suffer from a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta – or, as he says, “a fancy way of saying my bones break easily” – but we also learn that familial abuse has given him terrible PTSD. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but it leads me to my next point:
Does he assume that just because I’m different, I’m incapable of having a sexual relationship with anyone? That I’m unable even to feel desire?
This story focuses on an incredible amount of sex, and the way that it is handled made me want to cry tears of joy, because it is absolutely the kind of rep that we need in YA/NA books. There is a tremendous amount of talk surrounding consent (especially due to Alvie’s touch aversions and sensitivity to stimulus), and the characters are unafraid to sit down and talk about what is or isn’t comfortable for them. There’s a lot of sex positivity regarding one night stands and casual sex, but there’s also mention of how emotional sex can be between two individuals who care deeply for one another.
Both characters are virgins, and there are conversations about how terrifying that first time can be, or how toxic masculinity affects young men who don’t have sex immediately after puberty. There’s just so much important content about sex in this book, including the fact that, in this m/f couple, the guy is the one who’s “not ready”, and the girl is the one who has to tamp down her carnal desires and be patient. I just loved their whole relationship so much, for so many reasons, that I couldn’t even list them all here.
“When the ones who hurt you are the people who love you most… no one ever tells you how you’re supposed to deal with that.”
Finally, the last major topic Steiger addresses: abuse, in many different forms, as well as the guilt that can come with being an autistic or disabled individual with loved ones who don’t share your struggles. There is a lot of talk about feeling like a burden, or feeling “not good enough”, and Alvie shares a few flashbacks to painful moments and things her mother said to her, as well as an incredibly traumatic experience her mother put her through as a preteen. Despite all of these focuses on the negative outcomes of Alvie and Stanley’s respective family problems, the theme throughout the book remains the same: it should never be an autistic, mentally ill, or disabled person’s responsibility to feel guilty, useless, or broken. Instead, it should be society’s responsibility to learn how to offer compassion, empathy, accessibility, and understanding.
When My Heart Joins the Thousand isn’t your typical contemporary, and these aren’t your typical YA characters. This story is so unique, and so precious, and so heavy, and so special. I am so, so happy to have had the opportunity to read it, and I sincerely hope that Steiger writes more important work like this in the future.
Content warnings: ableism, PTSD, mental illness, assault, suicide, abuse, homophobia.
All quotes are taken from an unfinished ARC and may differ from the finished product. Thank you so much to HarperTeen for granted me this ARC in exchange for my honest review.
So this was just super heartfelt and just GOOD. Also slow. I won't deny I found the pacing and lack of things happening a little tedious (but I'm the kind of person who finds sleeping tedious because I WANT TO MOVE; so take that onboard). But like altogether it's the kind of book I want people to read when they want to know how the world treats autistic people?!? It was quite good for the autism rep. (Finally, holy heck.)
And there's also animals! Book references! Sandwiches! Feels! Disabilities! And your heart --> in pieces on the ground. All the good stuff we obviously need.
+ I'd also consider this kind of upper-YA, because it's about a 17yo aiming for emancipation.
Basically she has her own apartment, a job, and no parents in the picture. Alvie also is pretty keen to have sex and I always think it's good when YA discusses it (although Alive's reasons for wanting sex are kind of warped; but she knows it...she just wants to prove to herself that she can). But still, themes of independency and searching for a relationship that's going to be forever kiiiinda didn't feel like the average YA. This isn't a negative, more a comment!
+ The actual story = not a lot happened.
Work. Eating a sandwich. Avoiding the social worker's questions. Etc. Etc. It was a bit tedious to me and halfway through I kind of wandered away. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I came back. I am a conqueror.
+ So let's talk about the autism rep a second, okay?!
I'm always super excited to read ASD books because I'm on the spectrum and we get the most HORRIBLE rep generally. This book absolutely slams you with the bad stuff too though: misdiagnosis, being told "I know there's a real you locked in there somewhere!" and bad parents and ableism slurs. But the book unpacks them. Makes Alvie react to them. Reject them. Makes the good people reject them. That's how it should be in autistic books. And Alvie herself was an amazing and pretty accurate (imo) depiction of a girl on the spectrum! I particularly loved how she haaates smells (SAME and it never comes up in books!!). But she also has super severe PTSD, so like don't mix those symptoms up with her ASD. My only negative is that she was VERY intense with her missing of social cues, which (for reasons) I felt wasn't realistic. Like she's been in therapy as a kid + she's a girl and we're more likely to at least know we're messing up the social cues. But Alvie was like "here let me give you 38 facts about rabbits" and it just felt stereotyped.
But it. was. still. such. good. rep AND THERE WERE SO MANY WHOLESOME MOMENTS I JUST !!!
+ And the ship!? SHIP IT.
Stanley is like the absolute sweetest guy ever, with also a bucket load of problems. He definitely has depression/anxiety and tons of issues from his past aaaaand he's got a severe disability where he breaks bones really easily. So he walks with a cane, is occasionally in a wheelchair, and is often in and out of hospital. I loved reading about him. He was a sweetheart but also had messy reactions to things and screwed up and just AHHH. STANLEY. Flawed but heartfelt characters are my faves. [spoilers removed]
+ It's also majorly built on the book Watership Down!
Which I know!! Nothing!! About!! AT ALL!! Ok so I missed a ton of references and it was annoying at times, but I still enjoyed the book.
+ There's tons of frustrating things too, but we're dealing with a book about kids really struggling with mental health too.
So of COURSE they're going to make crappy decisions. I think it was really well presented and handled, even though both of them arghhh. Just stop, children. Stop and sit down and TALK.
Anyway, my solid answer to this book is: yes. Even if I was kind of bored in the middle haha. I mean, I think this book would be great for people facing adulting (ALTHOUGH don't make the decisions Alvie does; holy heck) and just trying to find their way in the world. The ending had me all feeling squishy. And I love how these are two teens who are a bit broken and life has kicked them and they have disabilities -- but there are no messages of 'you need to be fixed'. NONE. I'm so freaking pleased. More like this thanks.
Whoa! That was gut punch. Some tears were shed, but by the end, they were happy tears.
This book provided such an interesting look at independence and finding one's self. This was quite an emotional journey, during which I shed many tears. But I can assure you, I was shedding happy tears by the end of this book.
•Pro: I was such an Alvie fan. She was honest, to the point, and quite funny. She was a fantastic narrator, and I loved listening to her observations and musings. I also cared for her so much, she deserved so much more than the hand she was dealt, and I just wanted to see her achieve everything her heart desired.
•Pro: I loved Stanley. He was sweet and caring, but most of all, he didn't want to change Alvie. He made an effort to learn about ASD, because he wanted to know how to make her more comfortable, not to "cure" her.
•Pro: Alvie was a big reader, who mostly loved animals and science. There were so many cool discussion about the two. The science stuff I am well acquainted with, but I learned a ton about animals from her.
•Pro: I have read a few books featuring neurodivergent characters, and this one ranks up with the great ones. It made me think so much about what is "normal" or "typical", and also wove things into the story to educate me about people on the spectrum and help clear up some of those misconceptions that run rampant.
•Pro: My emotions! My emotions! For a good part of the book, there were these heartbreaking flashbacks that kept making me shed tears. I felt physical pain for Alvie and everything she had suffered in her past. I also shed some tears of joy, when things went her way.
•Pro: Both Alvie and Stanley are dealing with rough pasts. I was overwhelmed with happiness when they found each other.
Pro: A+ for that ending! I swear, it had me wanting to dance on the mountain top. Bravo!
Overall: This story was, at times, intense and heartbreaking, but ultimately, hopeful. I absolutely enjoyed taking this journey with Alvie as she fought for to be independent, to survive, and to be loved.
*ARC provided in exchange for an honest review.
Originally posted at NOVELcravings, review copy courtesy of Harper Collins.
This is one of those books that upon finishing it, I hugged it tightly to my chest. And I know that it is undoubtedly one of the best books of 2018 and I wish more people were talking about it! The author had me fall in love with her characters, care greatly for their journey and put me through every emotion possible. It was both movingly beautiful and painfully heartbreaking. If you read When My Heart Joins The Thousand, and let me be clear I recommend it to everyone, you will know what I mean.
The main character, Alvie is a foster child who lives independently while pursuing emancipation. Her fear is that she will be placed in a group home if the judge decides her Aspergers means she is incapable of being a functioning member of society. I can’t speak for the rep in this book, and there’s a lot, (mental health, abuse, disability, autism) but I think it was done well and handled respectfully. Like I said, this book makes you feel the whole rainbow of emotions. I felt love and admiration for Alvie because she never gives up despite all she’s been through. I was angry for her, at the broken system that failed her and must fail people in real life. I was disgusted actually, that society expected her to “get better” and be “normal”. But I also felt a lot of happy, especially every time Alvie did something outside her comfort zone, she is a truly inspiring character.
People with Aspergers tend to be blunt and so was the writing, in a way I think more YA should be. Teens don’t only need flowery stories of happy ever after, they need real stories that reflect the lives they live every day. Alvie doesn’t always understand sarcasm or societies way of constantly putting on a show. For example, when she has to attend court she can’t understand why a suit, instead of jeans and a t-shirt, helps prove her ability to be independent. And she’s right. I could relate to that. The characters are also very frank and honest about sex – this is so important for YA! Communication was clear, consent was there. Thank you, A J Steiger, for writing about two teens who handled sex in a very healthy way. This is what I would want my teenager to read.
Let it be known, the writing and pacing and all that important jazz were good. But I won’t talk about that in detail because more importantly, this book moved me. It is rare that a book makes me feel all the feels I did with this one AND I still think about it almost daily. I can’t tell you the last time a book impacted me like this.
I gave this book all the stars.
Go read it.
This book did an excellent job of making me care about its characters. Alvie is a 17-year old girl with Asperger's, and her journey is one that is emotional and awful and beautiful. I so rooted for her!
I'm so glad that books like this one and TV shows like Atypical are depicting those on the autism scale who seem often misunderstood and mistreated. It feels like a small glimpse into their lives, and I appreciated this book's unflinching look there.
This is great story that truly moved me - I hope everyone picks it up.