Back in the 80’s, I avoided dropping out of high school by becoming an exchange student. In what would have been my senior year, I attended a French lycée in the town of Blois in the Loire Valley. When I got there, I discovered that five years of junior and high school French had given me the fundamentals of reading and writing. But I barely understood a word of the language as it was spoken. Thank goodness for the other foreign kids at the school. I hung out with two Danes and a Kenyan and we created our own little language that was mainly English with smatterings of Swahili, French and Danish. By spring, French had finally planted itself in my brain and I could follow my teacher’s lectures on Le Rouge et le Noir, giggle at the jokes of my classmates, even dream in French. That’s when I learned that my classmates had earlier taken me for a snob. My discomfort with their tongue had come off as aloofness. Now that we could converse, they embraced me. On my return to the States, my entire class showed up at the train station to present me with a card and a necklace. I had no idea that they were coming and could barely say au revoir for the lump in my throat. I can still see them, bunched on the platform, waving enthusiastically until the train rounded a bend and they were lost from view.
That lump in my throat came back while reading Kids Like Us, Hilary Reyl’s moving account of Martin, a sixteen year old from California, who is accompanying his mother on a film shoot in Chenonceau, a chateau not far from the town where I lived in France. Reyl beautifully captures the colors and flavors and tempo of the Loire valley, along with the displacement and discovery I remember from that year. Martin is not as displaced by the French language as I was, for his father, who he refers to as papa, is French, and taught him how to speak the language, bake quatre quarts cakes and read Proust. Martin’s displacement stems from his autism. In California, he attends a special education school known as “The Center,” but for their time abroad, his mother has arranged for him to spend his days at a lycée to practice French with the locals. Martin is also displaced by the end of his parents’ marriage, which is linked to his father’s imprisonment. The matter of fact way that Reyl deals with Martin’s father’s incarceration mirrors the way she deals with Martin’s autism. Both are important pieces of information, but only one facet of their complex and sympathetic personalities.
As the story is told from Martin’s point of view, we are treated to an abundance of details that a more neurotypical narrator might have missed: the train ride from Paris to the town of Chenonceaux takes one hour and two minutes; forty percent of Martin’s French classmates wear Doc Martens, twenty-five percent wear Converses; the chapter headings include hours and minutes along with the date, so that the reader knows more precisely when Martin is forming his thoughts. But numbers are not the pivot of Martin’s soul. Proust is. In particular, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time which he has shortened to Search. Search goes with Martin everywhere. When he gets confused, he scans its pages for words that can explain the pulls and tugs that people exert on him and each other.
When I was sixteen, and found myself sinking into despair, which occurred quite often, I’d take Catcher in the Rye off the shelf, open it at random and let my eyes fall upon a sentence. To my wonder, the words of these sentences invariably helped. Sometimes they related to my plight, sometimes they redirected me, always they made me feel less alone. Martin’s relationship with Search is more literal; it is the portal through which he makes sense of the world. Thus it confuses him when the pretty girl at the lycée who captures his heart is named Alice. According to Search, she should be named Gilberte, and her parents should be artists, not gardeners. But if literalism grounds Martin, it does not govern him. By the end of the story, he has not only kissed Alice, he has called her by her proper name.
Kids Like Us appeared in my mailbox because of my work at Extreme Kids. If there is one thing that I have learned at Extreme Kids and through living with my son Felix, it is that the distinction between the disabled and the so called normal is at best blurry and usually in flux. We all have our blind spots and inabilities, and though they might be taken for weaknesses, they can bring us to places of deeper understanding and experience. This knowledge permeates Reyl’s book, which is not about autism, or a broken family, or an ambitious mother. Rather Kids Like Us is a beautiful tale about young love, the solace of books, the complications of friendship, and the taste of Martin’s cassoulet.