With the title “The Girl He Used to Know,” author Tracey Garvis Graves doesn’t give the reader a hint about what to expect. The reader won’t expect two main characters who are compelling and who will be indelibly etched on their minds. They won’t expect a love story between two people who in some ways are worlds apart, yet who just might be destined for each other. They won’t expect a story that hooks the reader from the start, but just keeps getting better and better until the final 40 pages, at which point it’s simply impossible to put the book down.
We meet the main character, Annika (rhymes with Monica) in 2001 in Chicago at a Dominick’s grocery store ten years after college. She unexpectedly runs into Jonathan, her former boyfriend from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (UIUC). The narrative alternates from Annika (mostly) to Jonathan, but also from 2001 (the “present”) to 1991 (at the university). From the present narrative, the reader understands that something happened after Jonathan graduated and moved to New York that made them break up. Something that Annika did. Something that remains mysterious for much of the story.
What the reader does realize almost immediately is that Annika is on the autism spectrum. She has a hard time fitting in. She loves animals and books and chess. She clearly states that she feels more comfortable with most animals than she does with most people. Smells, loud noises, complex social situations, and even uncomfortable clothing all are unbearable for Annika. But when she meets Jonathan at the chess club at the university, something clicks.
Jonathan is drawn to Annika, who is beautiful. He likes that she accepts him for who he is. He has transferred to UIUC from Northwestern in his senior year, and when Annika doesn’t ask why, he comments that she must be the first person not to ask him why. Of course, Annika doesn’t ask a lot of questions that others ask; she isn’t aware of many social norms.
Both Annika’s and Jonathan’s narratives are in first person. The way that Graves presents Annika is beautifully done because the reader gets to understand Annika’s way of thinking. In fact, reading this book will open readers’ eyes about people who are on the autism spectrum, how they think, and why they may seem different. What Graves accomplishes with Annika’s narrative is beautiful — we learn that Annika has the same thoughts, goals, and sensibilities that we all have. In fact, Annika is more sensitive and has more empathy than many others. What most readers will find heartbreaking is the abuse that Annika endures at the hands of cruel and insensitive people because she is different — girls in middle school, a real jerk in college, and simply those who are curt or dismissive in social situations. But then there are those who “get” Annika, including her college roommate Janice, who becomes her best friend.
When Jonathan and Annika meet after ten years apart, Annika knows that she’s ready to make their relationship work, but Joanthan wants to take things slowly. And slowly, the reader comes to understand why. And slowly, the reader falls a little bit in love with both of the characters. I was especially taken with one scene in which they talk about the relationships they have had in the intervening ten years. Annika explains that she dated someone “who was too much like me.” She says, “It was a disaster. People like us need people who are … not like us to balance things out.” Yet the reader will be surprised to discover that Annika had never been actually diagnosed with autism, even through adulthood.
Tracey Garvis Graves writes a beautiful love story, touching and sweet. But it’s so much more. It’s a story of how some of us struggle more than others to function. It’s also a statement that one simply cannot judge people from outward appearances, and those who may seem without emotion may actually have the biggest heart. This is a lovely story, a social commentary, and a call to action. Reach out and smile at others. Stop for an injured or stray animal at the side of the road (or even a family of humans). Volunteer your time to help others. And think of Annika when you do.
This was originally published on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.