Steffi suffers from a lot of mental health disorders, including severe anxiety, panic disorder, and selective mutism. She cannot talk except in rare circumstances or in the few locations/with the few people she’s most comfortable. Rhys is new at school, introduced to Steffi by their head of year because Rhys is deaf and Steffi knows a little sign language. For the first time, Steffi can communicate with someone without her voice, and between that and beginning a new medication for anxiety, she starts to improve.
Let me start by saying this isn’t a magic story where people with disabilities (physical or mental) suddenly get 100% better. There are no magic cures. One of the things that Steffi deals with all through the book and what frustrates her the most is that even when she’s happy and things are going well, anxiety or panic still strikes whenever it feels like it. Her voice will still disappear, even in moments when she most needs it. There is no “Super Steffi” waiting to pop out in the middle of a crisis. Barnard does a really good job portraying Steffi’s disorders realistically. That was my favorite part of this book.
The romance part – because of course you’re going to have a romance in a contemporary YA novel with that kind of book cover, no? – was also pretty cute. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and there were a lot of barriers that kept erecting themselves between Steffi and Rhys. Again, that was a good, realistic portrayal, even if at times I felt like there was just too much here, like Steffi should remember that she has a life outside of her newfound boyfriend. Not unrealistic in first-love stories, but still, a bit too much for me.
Unfortunately, I have two negatives to go along with my two positives, making this the fourth book in a row that I have mixed feelings about. (I need something to break the streak soon!) The first has to do with the lack of breadth in the novel. I get it – Steffi’s world is small. There are perhaps half a dozen people she can actually speak to. However, she attends school, works at an animal shelter, and has two family sets (divorced and remarried parents) that she interacts with regularly. Other than Steffi, Rhys, and Steffi’s best friend, Tem, all other characters are few and far between. Even people like Steffi’s family only have short cameos, and I think there were only three or four student names ever mentioned. I didn’t feel like the world was entirely fleshed out, and that made the novel feel a bit tunnel-like. Again, I get it, Steffi’s world probably feels tunnel-like! But even if she stays as invisible as possible, others still exist for longer than a few sentences. It almost seemed as if the book could have been Steffi-and-Rhys, all other characters removed, to tell the story, and I would have liked to see her in a more populated world.
The second thing that bothered me was Steffi’s relationship with Tem, or really, with anyone other than Rhys. Many books don’t pass the Bechdel test, but this one was extreme about it. Steffi literally could not have a conversation with any other female character that wasn’t about boys. I know that romance is a big part of many adolescents’ thoughts, but this girl has far bigger things to think about than boys, and those concerns rarely cropped up in conversation beyond a quick mention. That was a huge downside for me. I loved that this was a story about living with a disability in a world that often ignores disabilities, and I would have liked to see more of that beyond the romance. Yes, there’s a lot about it when Steffi is just narrating, alone, but I would have liked to hear more when she was with others. Plus, I would have liked her to talk with others about things that were not just her disability and/or romance. I’m sure she had more in her life beyond those two things!
I do think the positives outweigh the negatives, however. It’s just so rare to have books that deal with disabilities in a down-to-earth manner, and I think it’s important to have stories like this one out there.