There is a scene in Stephanie Kallos’ new novel in which protagonist Charles Marlow is describing all the clichés associated with an archetypal film on autism. It feels like a wink at the reader, as this book contains many of these same clichés. Yet Language Arts takes enough of a fresh approach to its subject to make it a riveting read.
As the title suggests, Marlow is a language arts teacher: He has taught for more than 20 years at a private sixth- through 12th-grade school in the Seattle area. He’s a respected educator who has a strong relationship with his students.
He is also the recently divorced father of a severely autistic institutionalized son and has just sent his beloved daughter off to college in New York. As he suffers through the malaise of empty-nest syndrome, he polishes off multiple bottles of wine while digging through a pile of dusty items that track his daughter’s childhood.
But old report cards and tea sets aren’t the only vestiges of the past Marlow finds himself facing. An article in his local paper quickly brings him back to another language arts classroom, where, as a misfit fourth-grader, he endured a traumatic experience that colored his life for years to come.
Kallos moves back and forth in time, and among characters, in a story that deftly mixes family drama, neuroscience, mystery and an exploration of the dying art of handwriting that is far more intriguing than it might sound. Along with becoming intimately acquainted with Marlow, readers will find themselves inside the minds of his unreachable son; his daughter, whom he enjoys writing long handwritten letters to; and even a dementia patient in his son’s art program.
A twist toward the end of the novel could have varying effects on the reading audience; some may find it fascinating while others may feel manipulated. However, Kallos—whose 2004 debut, Broken for You, became a hit with book clubs—has enough skill as a storyteller to pull it off. And you’re likely to find yourself rereading it at least once to fully absorb what you may have missed the first time around.