Julie Buxbaum‘s new novel, What to Say Next, is a heartwarming exploration of grief, social norms, and first love.Two teenagers from vastly different high school social strata find themselves talking to each other after years of occasional pleasantries. Over the course of the novel, they teach each other how to handle grief and experience love—even when it’s unexpected. They drive past all the noise and go directly to the things that matter.
Half of the narrative in What to Say Next comes from a teenage boy named David Drucker who falls on the Autism spectrum. He dislikes labels and comes up with what he believes is solid evidence refuting the idea that he has Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism. He’s just different, and everyone in school simply ignores him or forgets that he exists. But he’s had his fair share of torment, so to avoid potentially dangerous situations, David’s popular sister Laura—one-time ruler of Mapleview High—has him make Trust and Do Not Trust lists in his notebook. Each person in his class is profiled with details that he has observed, accompanied by any interactions he has had with that person in the past.
When it comes to Kit Lowell, David notes the way she always sits criss-cross applesauce, how her hair falls in commas across her face, how she smiles at him sometimes. Kit, who is half-Indian (Asian, not Native American, according to David’s notes), is the prettiest girl in school. She is someone with whom he never expects to have any meaningful social interaction.
Until the day she sits at his lunch table.
And the first thing David says? The most recent fact he’s learned about her: “So your dad is dead.”
Thus starts the beginning of their acquaintance as more than just classmates. Kit finds that it’s easy to talk to David. He’s straightforward, tending not to sugarcoat the fact of death. In turn, David experiences the nuance of flirtation, analyzing everything along the way. Much like Don Tillman’s 2014 novel The Rosie Project, David decides to take on the task of studying the mechanics of Mr. Lowell’s accident. Could he have braked in time? Or was death inevitable?
Kit and David come across some heavy truths over the course of the novel, and they come to depend on each other for feedback and support. Buxbaum does a fantastic job of crafting the narrative with both Kit’s and David’s perspectives. The precision and logic with which David approaches life suits the circumstances of Kit’s grief. Like every teenager that opines in a John Hughes movie, these two get each other.
What to Say Next is perfect for people who loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is effortlessly readable and its characters loveable. Perfect for the last stretches of summer.