Sixteen-year-old, music- and sound design-obsessed Drea doesn’t have friends. She has, as she’s often reminded, issues. Drea’s mom and a rotating band of psychiatrists have settled on “a touch of Asperger’s.”
Having just moved to the latest in a string of new towns, Drea meets two other outsiders. And Naomi and Justin seem to actually like Drea. The three of them form a band after an impromptu, Portishead-comparison-worthy jam after school. Justin swiftly challenges not only Drea’s preference for Poe over Black Lab but also her perceived inability to connect with another person. Justin, against all odds, may even like like Drea.
It’s obvious that Drea can’t hide behind her sound equipment anymore. But just when she’s found not one but two true friends, can she stand to lose one of them?
Title: Harmonic Feedback
Author: Tara Kelly
Category: Young Adult
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publication Date: May 25, 2010
Length: 278 pages
Series or Standalone: Standalone
Several regional awards (see Goodreads page)
Themes: Mental Illness/Autism
POV: First Person
Reviewer: Marisa Greene
How I Found It: Recommended to me by Atsiko for reasons of subject matter. The main character in the book has a nebulous diagnosis of Asperger’s and ADHD, the first of which I have a great deal of experience with. Plus it’s about a musician! More on that in the main review, though.
Cover Notes: I like the cover quite a bit, although it makes me think of Naomi more than Drea. There’s actually a turkish cover that I liked almost as much, because it reminded me more of the atmosphere of the book and Drea.
Soundtrack: As I was thinking of ways in which I might personalize the review format here at Notes, I realized I’m rarely reading a book without listening to music to. I generally try to find something that fits the tone of the book. In this case, I was listening to a lot of punk rock (duh!). Mostly riot grrrls bands and 70s punk rock girl bands. Think The Runaways and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, if you don’t know what I mean. Onto the review!
First, I have to be honest. This was a really difficult book for me to read, and also to review, for several reasons. Much like the main character, Drea, I’m on the autism spectrum. The most common diagnosis is mild to moderate Asperger’s, with some anxiety stuff that dovetails quite brutally. Further, although most of my friends as a teen didn’t do drugs, some of us were kinda wild and pretty messed up. One of the people in the group ended up a bit like Naomi, though it was suicide rather than an overdoes. I don’t want to drown anyone in these issues in my review, but I also prefer reviews that get a little bit personal, because how can you recommend a book to someone without getting a little personal? And I absolutely want to recommend this book to everybody, whether you have experience with ASD or not. Now for the fun part.
I really loved the main character in this book. She was clearly dealing with all the crap that comes with an ASD diagnosis, but Tara Kelly kept this from becoming just an issue book. Not that there’s no place for issues books, but I prefer a subtler approach. A lot of YA gets accused of being a bunch of issues books and crappy romance. Whether you agree with that or not, this book was neither of those things. Something that all teenagers have in common with people on the Austism Spectrum is difficulty fitting in. Now, whether either of those groups care about fitting in or not, it’s hard to avoid the attention from other people that comes with those conditions. Tara Kelly based this book on some personal experiences, and it definitely shines through.
Another thing I liked about Drea was her music. Personally, I love music, and I rarely go anywhere without some, so I’m a sucker for any book with a musical protag. Drea definitely reminded me of some of my teenage music buff friends. So did her love interest, Justin, and her best girl friend Naomi. I rather jealous of Naomi, in fact, because she has a great singing voice, and I sound like a cat stuck in the bathtub with the cold water on.
To get a bit serious again, I did have one problem with the music aspect, and that’s that Drea had an incredible talent. It’s a cliche or even a stereotype for people on the Spectrum to have very specific interests, or even to display more-than-human ability in some area. But that’s not everyone’s experience. Many people who aren’t neuro-typical(NT) get all of the downside and none of the supposed “benefits” of the disorder. So I’m both saying don’t expect every person with an ASD you meet to be like Drea, and don’t be too quick to attach Drea’s musical abilities to her Asperger’s, because that’s not giving enough credit to the rest of her character.
Justin and Naomi are both great characters in this book. (In fact, the whole supporting cast is pretty good, but it’s be a damn long review if I raved about all of them.) Justin seems like your average teenage boy at first, being clean cut and maybe even a bit straight edge. But like many YA love interests, he does have a darker past. The thing I loved about him is that rather than play the bad boy, he’s played more as a foil to Naomi’s asshole boyfriend Scott. Instead of sweeping Drea off her feet with his bad by side, he uses it to help Naomi with her problems. It’s a nice change for me from both the sickeningly sweet boy next door archetype and the bad boy with a heart of (fool’s) gold so common in YA love stories.
Naomi, on the other hand, comes from a long heritage of off-the-rails wild child best friends. She likes bad boys and drugs, and is not the most law-abiding citizen. She’s kind of like a punk rock Margo Roth Spiegelman from John Green’s Paper Towns. She and Drea’s issues played off each other beautifully. In fact, I found their relationship much more interesting than Drea and Justin’s. I often complain about the romance plots where everything could be solved by the two characters just having an actual conversation with each other, but I think Tara Kelly manages to dodge the cliche with these two characters.
And there were several other great relationships in the book.
Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even cried a bit at the end. I’d definitely recommend it to everyone, but especially people who like musically-inclined protags and difficult friendships.
Conclusion: 83/100 (Really loved this, despite a few minor faults)
Premise: 8/10 (A great look at being the new girl but with extra angst on top)
Plot: 8/10 (Everything followed logically, but it was still less than predictable)
Setting: 7/10 (Maybe I’m just bad with imagining settings, but it seemed like this could have been set anywhere)
Main Character: 9/10 (Loved her)
Love Interest: 7/10 (A little too understanding, but not a cliche)
ASD 8/10 (Nothing I could complain about as far as the depiction of Asperger’s.)
Supporting Characters: 9/10 (Fantastic)
Writing: 4/5 (Hated the journal entries, loved the rest)
Voice: 5/5 (Nailed it.)
Themes: 9/10 (Lots of nice layering and counterpoint)
Resolution: 9/10 (Depressing as hell, but worked for the story)
Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying, though I wish there had been a paperback I could have gotten my hands on.