I haven’t fully recovered.
Be warned – you will not escape the world of Charles Marlow, his ex-wife, his son, his daughter or his childhood unscathed. The characters of this novel could not be more raw or real if they tried. Truly, they all left a scar on my heart. This book swells with emotion, pain and the kinds of memories that can make or break a human being. If there was a literary how-to for swallowing your reader whole, Language Arts would be the primary guide.
Charles Marlow is in a sad state of adulthood. His marriage failed. He has no idea how to relate to his autistic son, Cody. His mood is consistently dictated by his childhood memories. While he’s a successful English teacher at a private school, that success only seems to burden him. Charles is as haunted as he is downtrodden. He is as unreachable as his son (who is approaching adulthood), who requires round-the-clock care.
Excerpt from the book’s description:
With the help of an ambitious art student, an Italian-speaking nun, and the memory of a boy in a white suit who inscribed his childhood with both solace and sorrow, Charles may finally be able to rewrite the script of his life.
Moving seamlessly back and forth through time, the story of Charles Marlow begins to unfold. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles’ past is as important as his present. Presently, Charles is learning how to relate to his autistic son and his ex-wife. In the past, Charles was learning how to cope with indifferent parents and toxic bullying at school.
It’s the accompanying cast of characters that manages to lead Charles out of the grip of depression and self loathing. The art student from his school (for whom he is an advisor on her senior project), the Italian nun who is under the care of professionals, and the ever-present memory of his classmate Dana all come together to lift Charles out of his hole. Not only did I root for Charles, but I fell hard for the people who helped tell his story. Even his teacher from so many years ago, Mrs. Braxton, helped shape Charles’ persona. (Never underestimate the power of a committed and innovative teacher – they’re as precious as the knowledge they share.) I believe that the power of this novel is in the affection the author has for people. Only a strong heart could share a sad story that manages to brim with this much hope.
The strongest current that runs throughout this novel is how loved ones can best care for the people in their lives who have special needs. In this case, how can Charles reach his son, who lost language so many years ago? How can you hold a child and communicate your love when your group-home visits include providing ramen noodles, a pestle and a mortar so your child can grind away? Are you enabling stimming? Are you avoiding attempts at meaningful exchanges? Are you just going to pick another fight with your estranged wife?
For this Hoarder, the love was present with every word of the story. It shone like a light with every failed communication attempt. You know in your heart that Charles must find a way to support his son, forgive himself, and make peace with his childhood. Pain this palpable can only continue for so long before the carrier falls apart. The arching message of Language Arts is one of acceptance, both of the self and of others. Some things cannot be fixed, but people can change how they cope. While you may be a bit of a mess by the end of the book, you’ll still leave this family with hope in your heart.
I must take a moment to share my love for Dana. He was an incredible character. Dana was a special needs boy in Charles’ 5th grade class. They struck up a friendship that was rooted in language, the need to avoid bullies, and the Palmer Method (writing style). It was an unlikely friendship, but one that both children needed desperately. Dana’s love for Charles couldn’t have been more pure. Each time they interacted, I got emotional. From pulling the “loops” off of their cupcakes to Dana’s cheers when Charles won a local story contest, their bond would affect them for the rest of their lives. I can’t say enough about the care that Stephanie Kallos took when she was writing these characters. They were beautiful.
One last note must be made about the narrator of this audiobook, Tavia Gilbert. Her performance was award-worthy. How she managed to create the voices of everyone in the story is completely beyond me. She captured the forsaken quality of Charles, the encouraging tones of Mrs. Braxton, and the unbridled joy of Dana. Tavia Gilbert brings the story to a new level. If you do choose to read this novel, and I highly recommend that you do, please choose the audio version. You won’t be disappointed.
(Until the story is done, that is.)
4 stars for Language Arts.