Last year, Katherine Center brought us the wonderful novel, “Things You Save in a Fire.” In my review, I said that if you only read one book last summer, that should be the book you chose. This summer we are treated to “What You Wish For.” It’s another lovely story about a strong young woman facing a difficult situation with determination and best intentions, if not with complete dignity.
Samantha Casey is a school librarian, so she’s an immensely admirable main character. She is the first-person narrator, and she doesn’t sugarcoat anything. In fact, she wants us to think that she is rather pathetic. She left her last job because she was madly in love with a teacher in the school who paid absolutely no attention to her. This teacher, Duncan, was much loved by the students. He wore fabulously funny pants (one pair with lobsters) and loud socks, and he juggled and sang and danced with the kids. She thought he was amazing and wonderful, but he didn’t seem to know she existed. Sam knew she had to get away before she completely embarrassed herself, and she got a job in Galveston, Texas, in a small, quirky private school where she now lives in the carriage house next to the principal and his wife, her two best friends.
Sam loves her job, loves her new home, and loves her friends. But when something tragic occurs, the object of her unrequited love comes to her school, and things begin to change. It’s not a good change.
Center draws us into Sam’s life slowly as she gradually shares more and more of Sam’s childhood and her past. We learn that she has epilepsy, and what that meant for her as a child, and how it affected her family. One thing that Center does seemingly without effort is to share ideas and concepts that make perfect sense, but which are thoughts that demand some reflection. For example, when, after a long time without seizures, Sam has one, is in a car accident, and is worried about returning to school, her friend (and principal and landlord) Max tells her that “Joy cures everything.” He tells her that joy is an antidote to fear, and that by taking actions that bring joy, one can make her life better. And that small thought changes Sam’s life just a bit. She begins to dress in bright colors and wear hats with flowers. And in doing so, she is reminded of the love she had left behind.
But when that love shows up at her school, he’s changed. Drastically. And he doesn’t seem to remember Sam at all, even though they worked at the same school for two years. What we learn over the course of the story is why Duncan, the new principal and old love interest, has changed, and we learn about Sam’s insecurity regarding her epilepsy.
Center writes about being a librarian as if she’s an expert. I love when Sam is hanging out with the other teachers and wants to get their attention.
‘Then I stood up on the back steps and called everybody to order by shouting, “One! Two!”
“Eyes on you!” they all shouted back.
So easy with teachers.’
That’s real teacher talk — take it from a teacher.
And I love it when Duncan tells Sam she seems like someone who doesn’t have any problems, because he sees the joy that Max has instilled in her. She explains that the joy isn’t because her life is easy or without problems, rather it’s in spite of that. She tells him it’s a choice. “A choice to value the good things that matter. A choice to rise above everything that could pull you down. A choice to look misery right in the eyes…and then give it the finger.”
The climax of the novel is a lovely extended scene that brought tears to my eyes. It’s not just about Duncan and Sam and their relationship, but also about a young boy and his relationship with his parents, which in a way mirrors the relationship that Sam had with her parents.
It’s a story that will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page, and it’s a novel that will warm your heart long after this steamy summer is just a distant memory. Don’t miss it.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by St. Martins, the publisher, for review purposes.