The Art of Adapting
by Cassandra Dunn



Touchstone, 2014. ISBN 978-1-476-76160-2.
Reviewed by Helene Benardo
Posted on 12/01/2014

Fiction: Mainstream

I did not want this grand book to end. I was so caught up in the lives of the characters that it was as if I had known them forever. Cassandra Dunn's first novel is set in California and tells the story of a woman newly separated from her husband, her two teen-aged children and her brother who has Asperger's.

The book is told in alternating chapters, each devoted to the point of view of one of these four family members and, as it progresses, you really get to know, sympathize, and root for them all. There's Lana who works as a substitute teacher in the elementary schools, Byron, sixteen and Abby, fourteen and Lana's brother Matt. Each section is fleshed out enough so it does not appear episodic—just a smoothly written transition from one to the other.

Byron is caught up in physical activities and, although quite proficient, has set his heart on a career in art. We also see him embarking on his first relationship with a girl. Abby, smart and athletic, is suffering from anorexia, and some of the most poignant sections of the book involve her condition, from its inception until help is found, and we see her grow emotionally as a result. Matt lives with the family after having had episodes of drinking and drug-taking and, in the author's extremely sensitive portrayal, we are able to understand the feelings of the sufferer of this disease. Indeed, in the acknowledgments section, Dunn mentions her uncle who had had Asperger's.

Cassandra Dunn's ability to get to the heart of each person is surprising, as this is her first novel. She especially knows adolescents and, in her portrayal of high school life, with its various social strata—the smart ones, the jocks, the mocking girls—she demonstrates that she knows that most difficult time of life.

Matt's extraordinary talents and interests are also explored, from his inability to be touched to his meticulously kept records of things as disparate as the number of birds on the trees, the number of times a particular dog has been walked in front of his window and, in the most moving sections, how he tries to help Abby by noting each morsel she eats, how she breathes and how often she laughs. All of this is interspersed with Lana's attempts to adjust to the single life and, toward the end of the book, her efforts to let herself relax and get to know a man vastly different from her husband.

I heartily recommend this most rewarding, lovely book.


Cassandra Dunn was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and a finalist in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers. She has two children and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Visit her website.

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