When I first began writing about a decade ago, I had a wonderful mentor, the great Sandy Benitez, who asked me an important question: What is your story about? Of course, I began rattling off plot points and character dilemmas but she stopped me, quickly. No, no, she said. What is your story about? Much later in my writing career, as I attended a few seminars on book reviewing, the issue of what the story’s about came up again, this time in reference to a way to write a review. What was the story about and how well did the writer get that across?
Melanie Conklin’s excellent debut YA novel, COUNTING THYME, is, on one plane, a story about a middle-child girl named Thyme and the sacrifices she and her family make for Thyme’s younger brother Val. In the course of Val’s treatment for a particularly bad kind of brain cancer, the family moves from California to New York to enroll him in an experimental and moderately desperate drug trial (if the new drug doesn’t work, the boy is out of options). All extremely heavy material, but the book is written from the point of view of 11-year-old Thyme, which is the perfect antidote to the story’s sadness. Thyme is, in some ways, a pretty typical sixth-grader. The way she deals with a first crush, in spite of the ongoing and very real family drama, took me right back to my admittedly geeky youth.
On a plot and character level the book succeeds marvelously. There is plenty of page-turning tension: uncertainty about Val’s treatment outcomes, the question of when the family will return to California, the slow and unsteady building of Thyme’s confidence in her new environment. Questions remain until the very last pages of the book, and in the ultimate reading pleasure, characters remained with me even after I finished the final chapter.
On the Sandy Benitez plane, the But what’s the book about? plane, I think this book succeeds every bit as well. I think the book is about empathy, a commodity sorely lacking in today’s world, and perhaps especially in today’s youth. There is, of course, the empathy the family feels toward Val, and Conklin is very open to how that empathy fails, sometimes, in a family where all children are needy. Thyme is very realistically conflicted about resenting her brother’s illness and the time/attention dedicated to him vs worrying for his life. Each of these feelings is validated in Conklin’s capable hands. But I think it’s the traveling past simple empathy for a sick sibling that really adds depth to this book.
There’s a character named Mr. Lipinsky whose story Thyme pieces out. There’s a substory of a friendship going to ruin in which Thyme has some stake. There’s the train wreck of a mother who is acting exactly the way I would act in such a situation, and it isn’t pretty. There’s the crush, who’s weathered his own tragedies. All of these components of COUNTING THYME add up (couldn’t resist!) to a world in which the reader is challenged with choices based on understanding another person’s point of view. Think we could use more of that in the world today?
Of all of these conflicts, I like Conklin’s choices best in Thyme’s decisions about friendships, especially her friendships with other girls. Most of what I remember from my daughter’s 5th-6th grade experience is cruelty. It’s an option for Thyme. You’ll have to see what she (and Conklin) do about that.
This book brought me to tears, and not necessarily when I would have expected it. In a world filled with empathy, opportunities for tears–of surprise, of compassion, of sadness–abound.