Title: NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST
Author: Eric Lindstrom
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Parker Grant has a long list of rules, and if you break one, she’ll cut you out forever. At least, that’s who she is on the surface. Underneath the layer of snarky self-absorption and mistrust is a girl who’s doing what she can to survive as a blind girl, even if that means shutting down her own emotions. Through her female friendships and struggle to figure out dating, Parker shows the seeing reader all the things that we don’t see, and in the process Parker learns hard truths about herself and others.
I picked up this book for the Diverse Reads 2017 March challenge. I wanted a book about a character with a disability that wasn’t (a) depressing, (b) cured in the end or (c) unrealistically focused on love and romance. Let me just say, I got what I wanted. Some things I loved about this book:
Snarky, “unlikable” narrator. At 27, I’m just learning how much I love bitter narrators. Maybe it’s because it matches up with the way I see the world, or maybe it’s because I myself would be an “unlikable” narrator. Either way, Parker exemplifies the best of the snark trend: she’s bitter, mistrusting, and completely blunt, both with her friends and with strangers. I loved that she refused to play by the rules of female-dom in society, choosing to speak her mind in all situations rather than say what others want to hear. Her rules are harsh, but they reveal so much about her experiences being blind. Even her rebellious decision to run, by herself, despite everyone telling her it’s dangerous, shows something about her: when she’s running, she gets to feel powerful and in control, and who could begrudge her for wanting that feeling? Parker is not a stereotype; in fact, she works incredibly hard to be completely independent and overturn any blind stereotypes thrown her way.
Fantastic, fully-fleshed out female friendships (say that five times fast). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: all hail the books that focus on complex friendships between teenage girls, because we definitely need more of them. Every single girl in Parker’s life is fleshed-out in her own way. I love the friendship between Parker and Sarah: they show what’s possible between best friends, as well as the real challenges that come into play, no matter how long you’ve known someone. Molly, Parker’s “buddy” at school, becomes somewhat of a stand-in for the reader, in that she asks the questions we would want to ask, but she also is an adorable diverse character, almost without us realizing it; she’s biracial and fat, but Parker doesn’t even know this until others point it out to her, which I thought was really interesting. I even liked the relationship between Parker and Faith, her childhood best friend who’s become popular but is still true to herself and friends with her old buddies. Although the plot does center on what some might call “girl drama,” I think it’s done in a very real, nuanced way that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Some caveats for reading this book:
This is not a romance plot. Granted, there is romance in the story, but even when it’s the focus it’s not the main point. I think Parker brings an interesting voice to the world of teen dating: because she can’t see guys, she doesn’t know a guy is physically attractive; she asks herself interesting questions about what she’s attracted to and complicates our understanding of chemistry. Her specific trust issues come into play as well, drawing attention to the way kids can make rash decisions that are easily misinterpreted (particularly if you’re blind like Parker). Be forewarned, however: if you’re looking for Happily Ever After, this is not the book for you. I did appreciate the more realistic approach of the ending, in that I don’t think most teenagers get to experience HEA at age 16.
Issue-heay: TW for Grief. **Not sure if this is a spoiler, but** Parker lost her sight when she was seven, in the same car accident that killed her (drunk) mother. As if that’s not dark enough, three months before the beginning of the story, Parker loses her dad—and the authorities think he killed himself, while Parker believes it was an accidental overdose. What I would call the main climax of the novel involves Parker finally recognizing that her coping mechanisms are flawed. She spends most of the book hiding all her emotions, talking to her dad inside her head, and giving herself a gold star every day she doesn’t cry. And while I completely understand why she did that—it seemed like it was working!—I wasn’t exactly surprised by her breakdown. For as much as this is a book about teen drama, being blind, and figuring out how to do romance stuff, it’s mostly a book about dealing with grief.
This book would’ve been five stars for me, but for a couple things. I thought the writing was mostly strong, but I did feel it could’ve been better. With a blind protagonist, I felt the descriptions of smell and touch could’ve been stronger, and most of the dialogue doesn’t have much else going on with it. I get that she can’t see who’s talking, but you’d think there could be a little more action there. Additionally, I wasn’t really into the subplot of Parker and Sarah acting as “therapists” for their female classmates. I can’t really explain why it threw me out, but it kind of felt like the (adult male) author trying to tell us what it’s like being a teenage girl (and totally over-doing it). I went through my fair share of drama in high school, but no way would I have turned to a couple girls who weren’t even my friends for advice.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed reading this book. I loved getting to “see” through Parker’s perspective what it’s like when you can’t see, from getting around town, to missing facial expressions, to trying to run when everyone tells you that you can’t. I appreciated the focus on female friendships, and I hope to see more books about disability like this one in the future.
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