Tish Cohen, author of TOWN HOUSE, generally writes children's books. INSIDE OUT GIRL is a book for adults about children. It takes a sympathetic and sensitive look at the hidden lives of youngsters, sees what they see and tells us how they feel --- about bullying, pop culture and even being gay.
Len Bean is a widower trying, often desperately, to raise Olivia, a six-year-old with "special needs," in this case a learning disorder that gives her the appearance of a higher-than-average verbal intelligence masking a total inability to understand what people are trying to tell her. If you tell Olivia "You're pulling my leg," her eyes go to your legs. Olivia thinks, hopes, that every day is her birthday and keeps on believing that children, any children, will come to her party. For Len, life is less than a party, knowing as he does that Olivia will repel rather than attract other kids, and will need a high level of personal care all her life.
Len meets Rachel Berman on the roadside, where he is trying ineptly to change a tire while looking out for the obstreperous Olivia. Rachel knows how to change a tire. She is the highly competent managing editor of a children's magazine called Perfect Parent, which has been losing sales lately because the reality of parenting is less than perfect. She takes time out of her packed schedule, which includes monitoring her two adolescent kids and unruly mother, to help Len, whose specialty is divorce and adoption law. His profession is part of the attraction --- that and Olivia, whose gun-metal gray eyes speak volumes to Rachel, reminding her starkly of a secret in her past that will come to light in the course of her crisis-to-crisis life as a single mom trying to engage in a courtship after a bad divorce.
As Len and Rachel become something more than friends, Olivia innocently believes that Janie and Dustin are her friends as well. She can't understand that people in their early teen years would rather, in the parlance of Janie and Dustin's favorite made-up game, "kiss a dead body crawling with a million trillion maggots" than be seen hanging out in public with a special needs kid. This leads to a terrible betrayal of Olivia. But worse is to come.
Thoughts of Olivia, and her growing affection for the child, have unlocked a Pandora's box of feelings in Rachel. Olivia's needs link Rachel back to her long-hidden past sins. And Len has something else going --- something worse, something that threatens Olivia's future in the most crucial way. But neither of them wants to talk about it. Until Olivia gets lost while the two families are out together experimenting in blending, and a Code Adam is released. Her loss and recovery signal that it's time to talk.
Through the eyes of Olivia and Rachel's kids, Dustin and Janie, we are led into the often seamy underworld of junior high school. At 14 Janie is pretty sure she's a lesbian --- that's a tough revelation for someone her age and made more so by her frustrated crush on Tabitha, a rich girl, a snob, one of the in-crowd. By guile and shameless fawning, Janie manages to worm her way into Tabitha's inner circle, and through careful plotting she gets her alone in her bedroom and sets up for a kiss. Not surprisingly her best-planned lay becomes the perfect storm of disgrace, with ripples of cruel gossip and mistreatment in its wake. Janie wants to die, but the alternative is to go ahead and have sex with a boy, to white-wash her public image, and punish herself for her stupidity in loving a girl. And she might have succeeded in charting her self-destruction --- but it is miraculously, if unconventionally, rescued by the despised and ignored Olivia.
INSIDE OUT GIRL is a crisp and involving novel that all parents would enjoy, and it's entirely suitable for older teens as well. Without the slightest hint of preaching, it throws a sympathetic lifeline to single parents. It gives excellent insight into what it must be like to raise a child with special needs, especially those of a more perplexing, less socially understood sort. It shows how trying to be the "perfect parent" can lead to pitfalls, and reveals some broader definitions of love and caring within and beyond the conventional family.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011
Inside Out Girl