Although Marti Leimbach's Daniel Isn't Talking is fiction, the engrossing story reads like the real-life diary of a mom at her breaking point. The author, whose first novel, Dying Young, was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts, admits the story is taken in part from her own life. Her son was diagnosed with autism five years ago, and the reactions of her friends and family shocked, surprised and saddened her. That experience has infused this novel, which follows a funny and courageous mother fighting to give her child a normal life.
Melanie Marsh, mother of two, has become a shadow of her formerly confident, breezy self, reduced to begging her shrink for medication to cope with her constant anxiety and increasing desperation. The reason: her 19-month-old son Daniel is obsessed with just one toy, won't stop crying, and, unlike his bubbly older sister Emily, doesn't talk or play with other children. Melanie's British husband Stephen is dismissive of her concerns. When Daniel is finally diagnosed, Mom wants the harsh truth and Dad prefers denial. Their beloved little boy has turned into a slightly alien, uneducable time bomb, and the blame and fear rip apart their marriage. Preferring work to the new reality at home, Stephen withdraws from his family and demands that Daniel be sent away to a special school. It is an interesting dissection of two divergent methods of coping. But while we see Melanie struggle with complex emotions as she learns to see her boy as more than different, Stephen is too easily reduced to a selfish two-dimensional character. The most intriguing character here is autism itself, the mysterious condition that cannot be cured, or even effectively mitigated . . . a genetic mistake for which we will forever pay the consequences. Fans of Mark Haddon's A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will appreciate the portrait of an autistic toddler, this time from the point of view of a mother who stuck around. Readers will laugh as Melanie gives attitude to the experts and cry as the exhausted mother struggles to survive the screaming fits and odd looks that accompany an ordinary trip to the supermarket. This novel is bittersweet, resilient and not to be missed. Former BookPage business columnist Stephanie Gerber writes from Louisville, Kentucky.