When I was given a copy of Not If I See You First, I fully admit that I was skeptical. It’s rare that I come across a book featuring a blind main character that really resonates with me as honest and accurate. Partly because it’s difficult, I think, for sighted authors to really understand the intricacies of blind life. Not just what it’s like, physically, to not see, but the social aspects, too. There are many elements of living and interacting as a blind person that have nothing to do with sight. Elements it’s hard to understand if you’ve never been blind.
The first thing you should know about Parker Grant is that she has rules—a list of rules about how (not) to interact with her. It includes things like, Don’t help me unless I ask. Otherwise you’re just getting in my way or bothering me. She has rules about not speaking loudly or slowly to her (something people often do to the blind) and not touching her without asking (again, something people do surprisingly often), but the most important rule is this:
Don’t deceive me. Ever. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.
Now, to be clear, I am legally—not completely—blind. Where Parker has no sight or even light perception (a situation that is actually fairly rare among the blind community), I have some remaining vision. However, I related to all of Parker’s rules immediately. I wanted them printed on a t-shirt.
Parker is not always a particularly likable character. She’s got serious trust issues and is often judgmental or just clueless in ways her blindness cannot excuse. Her brutal honesty and lack of a filter is often seen as “bitchy” and she’s usually okay with that. She’s still struggling with the death of her father but is so determined not to let anyone help her or see her pain that she often comes across as stubborn or bratty. And, honestly, I found that wonderfully refreshing.
Blind characters are often portrayed as either villains or victims. Parker is neither. She’s not an inspiration. She’s not a tragedy. She’s a teenage girl who makes both good and bad decisions and has to face the consequences as anyone else would.
There were things about Parker that initially bothered me. For instance, she always wears a scarf as a blindfold over her eyes. This made me bristle at first as it seemed like such a silly thing. I’ve never met a blind person who does this. But the author manages to give a reason that worked for me: Parker sees the blindfold as a fashion statement. She chooses it carefully every morning. And it’s a statement no one else can recreate as they’d need to be able to see. It’s her way of expressing individuality whilst being a bit cheeky. Unfortunately, near the end of the book, this reasoning is undermined. It seems like Parker wears the blindfolds more out of a sense of insecurity or perceived vulnerability. This bugged me because it sort of implies that blind people’s eyes are something worth hiding, a weakness. This is a somewhat common trope. This was the only part of the ending I disliked/was bothered by, especially as it changed the initial reason given for the blindfolds, which I really quite liked.
Parker is also a runner. She runs in her neighborhood and in a field nearby. Without a cane. This really bothered me at first because it seemed so dangerous. Too often I see writers, determined to make their leading blind characters independent, overcompensate and have them take on tasks or activities that, in reality, are unrealistic or dangerous. Parker running in the field didn’t bug me so much—it’s an open space that she has memorized over the years—but around her neighborhood? Where it’s easy for a car or a skateboard or anything, really, to be in the way?
But the writer addresses this. Lindstrom acknowledges that Parker’s behaviors are sometimes risky and that, as much as she wants to be independent, sometimes a little bit of help is okay. At the same time, it was clear that the characters who were constantly “looking out for” Parker weren’t necessarily in the right, either. I was impressed with how much nuance the situation was given. It was something I hadn’t seen much of before.
For the most part, Lindstrom also depicted basic assistive technology well, discussing the types of text-to-speech Parker uses on her phone (where she has fun changing the reading voices) for example. The only detail that stood out to me as maybe not accurate is when Parker claims that, because she has to listen to all of her books on text-to-speech devices, she reads twice as slowly. This may very well be the case if Parker listens at an average rate, but in my experience many blind people get so comfortable with text-to-speech that they are able to speed up the speech rate and read just as fast—if not faster—than someone reading visually. (For context, I actually listened to this book at a rate of 550 words per minute.) Obviously not all blind people will listen at speeding rates, and Parker even acknowledges once that she has the option to speed things up, but it stuck out to me as someone who does a lot of text-to-speech as something worth noting.
But the strongest part of the book, really, is Parker’s relationships with her female friends. Each one is different and given so much depth. Parker is not always a good friend—sometimes she’s really not a good friend at all—but she loves her friends deeply, and all of their interactions felt real and complicated to me. It was in these moments that the book felt the most real to me.
On the flipside, I was underwhelmed by Parker’s relationship with Scott, the boy who broke that most important rule years before and is now back in Parker’s life. While their backstory and ultimate ending had a unique and complex dynamic, I never found myself cheering for them. I never felt the chemistry between the two. That said, their ending was a surprise to me. New light is shed on both characters in a way that felt more nuanced and poignant than I expected. So while it didn’t work for me as a romance, Parker and Scott’s story was still interesting and unexpected.
On another downside, there is a face-feeling scene. Yes, that dreaded trope among blind people. This one didn’t bother me too much, however, because of its context. In the scene, Parker is with her friend, Sarah, who is upset but not speaking. Parker demands to touch Sarah’s face, insisting that it’s not fair that Sarah is able to hide her face from Parker just because she can’t see. Parker admits she hasn’t done this in years and it’s clear she’s only doing so to gauge Sarah’s emotional state. It didn’t ring true for me, personally, but like with many other situations in the book, it took something a bit stereotypical or trope-y and handled it in a new, unexpected way.
It should also be noted that mental illness and possible suicide are discussed. Parker’s father overdosed on anxiety meds and it’s unclear whether it was an accident. I cannot speak to the depiction of his mental illness personally (especially as it’s a fairly small part of the book) but I can see it having the potential to be triggering, so I thought it worth mentioning.
Not If I See You First surprised me. I went in skeptical and closed the book feeling quite pleased. There were moments when I worried the author was falling into a blindness trope or a stereotype, but he almost always handled it with nuance and grace. And Parker Grant is a complex, flawed character with real and dynamic relationships. Parker’s blindness was handled realistically, and was by no means the most important part of her character or her story. Just like real blindness, it is a big part of her life but not the only part of her life. This is definitely a book I will be recommending.