I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum through Netgalley. All of my opinions are my own.
Growing up in the shadow of a famous mother, Clara has never felt good about her body. Now, at sixteen, she has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. After a social media disaster, she decides to escape for the summer to Paris to stay with her estranged dad and her six-year-old brother, Alastair, who is on the autism spectrum. Charged with his care, Clara and Alastair set out to explore the city. Paris teaches Clara about first love and gives her a new love of food. And Alastair teaches Clara about patience, trust and the beauty of loving without judgment.
I initially requested On the Spectrum because it is set in Paris. I recently visited Paris for the first time, and I thought it would be fun to be able to recognise some of the sites as well as the laid-back culture of France. However, this book was much more than that – it was a surprisingly sweet story about self-acceptance, love, and food.
Clara has orthorexia – this is an eating disorder that causes her to obsess about clean eating and exercise. I have had a type of eating disorder in the past, and a close friend of mine has had orthorexia, so I really went into this book looking at the representation. First of all, the fact that it is being represented at all is incredible. I’ve never heard of a book doing that before, and I hope that there will be more books about this particular disorder. Secondly, I talked about some of the scenes with my friend, and they thought it represented their experiences very well. I didn’t find it especially triggering, as many books about eating disorders can be, but please keep in mind that clean eating/obsessive exercise was not part of my particular experience. However there were quite a few instances of negative self-talk, and fat-phobic comments. It is also made clear that Clara’s mother has caused the orthorexia because of her own eating disorder, therefore I will also include a trigger warning for emotional abuse.
There were a couple of sections where I worried about the love interest, Michel, as he seemed to want to fix Clara. This is one of my most hated tropes, so I had my guard up. However, I think this was handled quite well, as Michel himself comes to the realisation that Clara is the only one who can help herself, albeit with his assistance. I think that this could be a direct critique of the love-cures-all narrative, and I found that extremely refreshing. (It also helps that he was a pastry chef (!!!) and absolutely lovely to boot.)
I cannot say whether the autism representation was accurate or not – when I see a review by someone with autism, I will link it here. In my limited knowledge, it seemed pretty good. At a couple points throughout the novel, Alastair wears a weighted vest to help deal with crowds and heights. I’d never heard of this before, so I found that especially interesting. He also uses sound-cancelling headphones, and a scarf to help with his sensitive sense of smell.
Overall, I found On the Spectrum to be an interesting representation of an eating disorder that is rarely talked about, and never represented before. I will definitely be interested in reading more by Jennifer Gold.