Book Review: Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
This book doesn’t go where I thought it was going to go. It’s slightly askew from a typical psycho-thriller, and slightly darker than a typical Jodi Picoult-type of story about a sibling of a non neurotypical child. It’s the story of the Hammond family with Josh, Tilly, an A-spectrum pre-teen, her mother Alexandria, and Tilly’s sister Lily, two years younger. As the story begins, they are heading to a camp in the woods to spend the summer away from it all as part of a shared-family bonding experience. Or is it a cult? Or is it just a summer camp?
The character who ties everyone together is not Tilly, but a charismatic leader named Scott Bean. Chapters in the novel alternate between scenes at the camp, with Scott Bean leading the families in his ideas, and second-person accounts from Alexandra, discussing how she got to the place in her life where she was desperate enough to sell her house and move to the wilds of New Hampshire following a self-proclaimed educator who has no real credentials. Scott is one of the few people she encounters who actually seems to be able to make real progress with her daughter Tilly.
Other chapters involve a whimsical third-person account of a museum far in the future dedicated to the Hammond family. These whimsical chapters were creative, but I didn’t feel they added anything to the story, and the narrator of these chapters had a squeaky voice which annoyed me.
For me the best thing about this book was that I didn’t know where it was going to go, except that it was going to end badly for everyone. But in what way? Parkhurst tantalizes us with clues. Is it the letter in the trash that wasn’t mailed like Scott promised? Is it the story he tells about his brother that turns out later to be a lie? Is it about his visceral reaction when Lily complains about the nasty-boy camper? Or maybe it’s the secrets he learns during the game “Werewolf,” which reminded me uncannily of anecdotes I learned from a book about the Jim Jones massacre. With several families cut off from civilization in cabins in the woods, the potential disasters seem limitless. (Spoiler: it wasn’t the merman.)
But in addition to the dark tension threaded throughout, this book also offers a glimpse at what it’s like to raise a child with different needs. At the end of the book, Parkhurst offers a brilliant analogy of raising a child with wings. That essay was worth the cost of the book, if you’re the sort to buy them at the bookstore. You can sense Josh and Alexandra’s frustration with the continual problems that Tilly causes, and how inadequate they seem to care for her.
The only theme that ties these two aspects together is the leitmotif of the tyranny of public opinion. because being out in the woods helps the families in that no one is surprised by the outbursts or odd behavior of the different children. No one judges or acts like the parents are to blame when a non neurotypical child has a meltdown. Scott too is obsessed with public opinion, in a way that has sad and tragic consequences.
All in all, this was a very unusual novel and I’m glad it managed to surprise me.