Published by Simon Pulse on January 9th 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I know we’re only halfway through January, but I have a strong feeling that Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder has already secured itself a place on my Best of 2018 list. It’s one of the most gorgeous contemporary stories I’ve read in a long time and I don’t know that I’ve ever related to a main character more than I related to Steffi Brons.
Steffi is a high school student who was diagnosed with selective mutism as a young child and who has lived with social anxiety and chronic shyness all her life. What this means for Steffi is that, for most of her life, it has been nearly impossible for her to effectively communicate verbally with pretty much anyone outside of her immediate family. And because there were even times when she had trouble verbally communicating with her family, she and every member of her family learned how to use sign language as a workaround.
About the only non-family member Steffi is able to easily communicate with is her best friend, Tem. Steffi and Tem have known each other since they were toddlers, and in many ways, Tem has acted as somewhat of an interpreter in social settings such as school over the years when Steffi has just not been able to get the words out on her own. Up until this year, that is. Tem ends up transferring to a new school, and Steffi is on her own. With the help of her therapist, however, Steffi begins taking some new medication and also starts making plans to slowly but surely challenge herself to better cope with her anxiety and shyness.
Enter Rhys Gold, the new boy in school. Rhys is deaf and has transferred to Steffi’s school, and since Steffi is the only student at the school who knows sign language, their teachers decide it would be a great idea to pair them up so that Steffi can help Rhys get acclimated to his new environment. Because Rhys can’t hear, it doesn’t matter to him that Steffi usually cannot speak. They find plenty of other ways to communicate that don’t involve speaking and form a fast friendship that quickly turns into something more.
With so many changes going on in her life, Steffi starts to have a lot of questions: Can she ever overcome her anxiety and go out and live a normal life? Can she go off to college and live away from her parents? If there’s an emergency, would she be able to cope with her crippling shyness enough to get help? And then there are the matters of the heart – is she really falling for Rhys or does she think she is because the relationship is easy because no speaking is necessary? And finally, after all of these years of living this way, if Steffi is able to overcome her anxiety, will she even know who she is anymore? Will she recognize herself?
This is one of those books where there’s so much to love. It has wonderfully-drawn, realistic main characters in both Steffi and Rhys. I fell in love with both of them immediately – Steffi, because I could relate to her crippling shyness and social anxiety as those are issues I’ve dealt with all my life as well, and Rhys, because he’s charming and friendly, and I loved that he left his deaf school because he wanted to challenge himself in an environment where everyone around him was not hearing-impaired.
I especially related to Steffi because of her determination to challenge herself a little at a time to better cope with her anxiety. I remember doing similar things when I was in school, challenging myself to raise my hand and answer questions in class, etc. Watching Steffi in many ways was like reliving many of my own school experiences so of course I was cheering her on every step of the way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself in a character as much as I see myself in Steffi.
In addition to having these two amazing main characters, I also loved the focus on friendships and family that Barnard presents in A Quiet Kind of Thunder. I absolutely adored the friendship between Steffi and Tem. Tem is a fabulously well-developed character in her own right, but what I loved most about her was that she just “gets” Steffi. She accepts her exactly the way she is and supports her in every way that she can. I loved how realistic the friendship felt, especially when it came to some of their heart-to-heart conversations. Their conversations are honest and intimate and were conversations that I could totally imagine myself having with my best friend when I was that age.
The family support that we see in A Quiet Kind of Thunder is wonderful too. So many times we see parents that are oblivious to what is going on in their teen’s lives or they are unsupportive. Thankfully, not in this case. Yes, Steffi’s parents are of course concerned about her and are apprehensive about the idea that someday she will move out and go away to college. They’ve known her all her life and have seen firsthand just how crippling the anxiety has been for Steffi. But, that said, they have also done everything parents can possibly do to get her, not only the professional help that she needs to cope with it, but also the support at home. And we see the same kind of support at Rhys’ house, with his parents being on board with the idea of him challenging himself at a mainstream high school, etc. It just made for a nice reading experience to actually like all of the parents that were in the story for a change.
I could probably write for days about everything I loved about this book, but I’ll wrap up by talking a little about the diversity and the portrayal of mental illnesses and disabilities. One of Barnard’s main characters has selective mutism and severe anxiety, while the other is hearing impaired and also happens to be bi-racial. Tem is a POC as well. I thought Barnard did a beautiful job of writing a book with a diverse cast of characters without making it feel like she was just checking off boxes.
I also thought she handled the selective mutism, the social anxiety, and the deafness in a well-informed and respectful way. I felt like I learned a lot about all of them, and I loved the book’s positive message that even with any of these conditions, you can still live a productive and meaningful life, and not only that, but yes, you can find love.
Speaking of love, I’ll admit I got a little worried that the book’s message would be that having a boyfriend is somehow a magic cure-all for anxiety. Thankfully, A Quiet Kind of Thunder does nearly the opposite. Steffi clearly acknowledges throughout the story that she is probably doing as well as she is with her anxiety because of the new meds. There never comes a time when she attributes it to having a love life. So no worries at all on that front.
When I first started reading, I thought I was going to have an issue with the romance between Rhys and Steffi because it definitely had an insta-love feel to it at first. I was able to get past that, however, because Barnard takes the time to have her characters explore the same questions I was asking about how they really do feel about each other: Do they like each other because they really feel like they have a connection or do they like each other because it’s convenient? Is Rhys only hanging out with Steffi because she’s the only one at the school who knows sign language? And is Steffi hanging out with Rhys because she can use sign language rather than actually having to speak? As soon as Steffi and Rhys started thinking about their own connection in these terms and started working through their own doubts, I was much more comfortable with their relationship moving forward since it added an extra layer of depth to all of the initial fluffiness.
If you’re looking for a beautifully written coming of age story that also includes a little romance in addition to tackling more serious issues like mental health, I’d highly recommend A Quiet Kind of Thunder. It’s an engaging and moving read that is sure to put a smile on your face.
A girl who can’t speak and a boy who can’t hear go on a journey of self-discovery and find support with each other in this gripping, emotionally resonant novel from bestselling author Sara Barnard. Perfect for fans of Morgan Matson and Jandy Nelson.
Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.
Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life. The condition’s name has always felt ironic to her, because she certainly does not “select” not to speak. In fact, she would give anything to be able to speak as easily and often as everyone around her can. She suffers from crippling anxiety, and uncontrollably, in most situations simply can’t open her mouth to get out the words.
Steffi’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to help him acclimate. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk. As they find ways to communicate, Steffi discovers that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it. But as she starts to overcome a lifelong challenge, she’ll soon confront questions about the nature of her own identity and the very essence of what it is to know another person.