Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of the plot of The Half-Life of Planets, the portrayal of Hank—the autistic main character—was better than I’d expected. I’ll discuss the good parts before explaining the elements I thought were problematic.
(Note: This book came out a while ago, before the DSM-5 was published. Hank’s diagnosis within the book is Asperger’s syndrome.)
The story begins with Hank running into the women’s bathroom in a hospital with water on his crotch while the female main character, Liana, stands in the bathroom thinking about her last day of school. From there, the plot is a typical romance. They get coffee and become friends, and a summer romance seems possible. The main obstacles: Hank is socially awkward and has an overly flirtatious older brother, while Liana’s father has regular health scares.
The story is interesting enough, though I felt the last part of the book had too much going on, and I was irritated by some details that felt overly cutesy to me: for example, Liana is really into astronomy, and her last name is Planet.
Hank himself felt like a fairly accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be autistic. He obsesses over music, doesn’t understand social cues, plays air guitar to calm down, and gives Liana seemingly random presents based on her off-handed mentions of them: root beer in a glass bottle, for example.
It was great to see an autistic character as the star in a romance, as many autistic characters are desexualized by default. It was also nice to see an autistic character who wasn’t obsessed with math or something similar. Music permeates every aspect of Hank’s life; he meets with Liana for coffee at a place that lets him DJ occasionally, and he brings a CD that he hopes will help him start a conversation if they have nothing else to talk about. He also stims by playing air guitar, which was interesting to see. Most books, if they recognize the existence of stimming, use hand-flapping and nothing else.
Hank also has some descriptions of what social interactions are like for him that I felt were very accurate. It’s clear from the beginning of the book that he likes Liana a lot, but since this is the first time a girl has given him the time of day, he has no idea what to do. When pondering this, he says:
It occurs to me that in semi-romantic situations, or whatever, there may be rules that don’t apply to normal conversational situations. I feel lost. I know that in normal conversations, words are working on two levels, but I can only follow one. Now I feel like there may be at least one more level, making me two levels behind. (p. 100)
I’ve somehow managed to stumble through those sorts of situations, but with the help of friends who actually had experience in this area. Hank’s only romantic advice comes from his lecherous brother Chase, whose advice is generally about getting into someone’s pants, and his mother, who just tells him to be himself.
Unsurprisingly, but also sadly, he resents his mother’s advice; when he’s himself, everyone at school bullies him. I found it somewhat hard to believe that he hadn’t encountered anyone his age who shared his interests and/or operated more on his wavelength before he met Liana, but maybe people were peer-pressured into bullying him even if they could have gotten along well with him. Hank doesn’t particularly seem to care about being bullied. The bullying subsided after ninth grade, which I felt made sense based on my experience of trial and error of how to avoid bullies.
An example of Hank’s social and romantic inexperience is that at one point he asks the social worker who helps him with social skills to a movie—not because he likes her, but because he doesn’t understand teacher-student boundaries and simply thought she would like the movie. I learned about those boundaries when I was far younger, but it didn’t necessarily feel like humor at Hank’s expense; it could’ve been the result of not having the opportunity to learn.
Unlike the main characters in many other “Aspie” books, Hank is portrayed as an actual human being, with feelings, a sense of humor, and hopes and dreams. He doesn’t use a detached-sounding voice in the chapters that he narrates, and when he goes to a party and someone yells at him, “Way to wreck the party!” he responds with, “I am available to ruin any party for a small fee.” He makes other jokes throughout the book, and I was happy to see that he was shown having a sense of humor.
Hank isn’t always treated well, but it’s written realistically. For example, when he first meets Liana, he doesn’t say up front that he has Asperger’s. But he decides that if they’re actually going to be friends, he should inform her of his diagnosis. He’s braver than I am in that way; I didn’t tell my boyfriend I was autistic until we had been dating for several months. Liana’s reacts by temporarily thinking Hank is a whole different person, which felt honest, even if it wasn’t ideal. People often reevaluate everything they know about an autistic person before they come to the same conclusion: They’re the same person, but now it’s clearer why they sometimes act a certain way, which is what Liana eventually understands. Liana doesn’t treat Hank differently for the most part, aside from a weird desire to push him out of his comfort zone, which I’ll discuss later.
One scene in particular made me want to love this book. We eventually learn that Hank’s father died a while back, and he was most likely autistic as well. In real life, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising, as autism has a strong genetic component, but in books, this is rare. I appreciated the acknowledgement that autistic people are so rarely the only ones in their family with autistic traits. Some of what Hank said while describing his relationship with his father to Liana stuck out to me. He understands that his father loved him, even if he had a different way of showing it than his neurotypical mother did.
We would sit side by side for hours, you know, him cataloguing his music collection, me sharing interesting tidbits about, for example, the ever-shifting borders of certain African nations. This was…I know that this was his way of expressing love. I think he was as puzzled by Chase as Mother is by me. He would attend the games and cheer, but fundamentally not get it. So I know…I know he loved me. I know he loved me because he would sit with me and listen to me talk about maps, and because he would tell me the history of SST Records the way some parents tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“But all the same, he never took me in his arms and hugged me and told me he loved me so much, the way Mother does. (pp. 167-8)
(Before Hank was obsessed with music, he was obsessed with maps, hence the mention of shifting borders of African nations.)
In a world where people believe you’re a monster if you don’t constantly hug people and tell them you love them, this sticks out. It emphasizes how you can express love in multiple ways, and how these aren’t any lesser.
Now, for the parts I didn’t like. I’m very concerned by some elements that seem to be cure-ish symbolism, Liana’s treatment of Hank, and what I call “The Separation.” Let’s start with that last point. As is common in romances, there’s an obligatory period where Hank and Liana are broken up, in this case over an event that felt manufactured: Hank tells a group of girls about a plan of Liana’s not to kiss anyone for the summer, and in response, Liana kisses Hank’s brother. It didn’t feel true to the characters as I understood them, as though it was done only for the sake of drama—even though there was plenty of drama to go around already.
Throughout the story, I also noticed elements that might’ve been symbolism for Hank’s autism “improving.” Hank works at a music store, and has his eye on a Jazzmaster, a guitar that was used by several famous musicians. He puts all his money towards the guitar, but as the book progresses, he skips work repeatedly to spend time with Liana, and buys a cell phone at her encouragement. Nothing is wrong with either of these, but it seemed like symbolism for becoming more “normal” because he was spending time with a girl instead of only trying to save up for the Jazzmaster. It felt like a sudden shift in priorities, and I hope the authors aren’t trying to imply that Liana is becoming his new obsession.
I sincerely hope that at some point after the happily-ever-after kiss, Liana and Hank have a serious talk about their relationship. Several times throughout the book, Liana seems to be trying to change Hank. She takes him into social situations he doesn’t know how to navigate (going to an arcade with a crowd of obnoxious college lacrosse bros), and at the very end of the book, Liana makes a comment about how he doesn’t mention anything music-related right before they kiss, “even though he could.” This bothered me a lot. Unless Liana accepts Hank’s obsession with music and is willing to understand that he won’t be some super suave, romantic guy 24/7, I have a hard time supporting the relationship. My boyfriend does not force me into puzzling social situations, and if we find ourselves in one, he helps me through it. I would have had a lot of trouble with going to a Boston Calling concert if he hadn’t been there with me, and if I suddenly relate something seemingly unrelated to one of my obsessions du jour, he is understanding.
In conclusion, I wanted to like the representation, but I thought elements of both the autistic character and execution of the story in general were poorly done. If conventional rom-coms are your thing, then you might enjoy it, but I wouldn’t recommend it purely for its autistic representation. Ultimately, I wasn’t a fan.
A great review, Isabel. I loved how you really dug into the story and brought out what felt authentic and what didn’t. I’m not a fan of stories in which one character brings the love interest into his/her sphere; I see this in films all the time. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the audience: “Oh whew! He/she will be normal now.” It’s rare to find stories where a character will meet the love interest on his/her own terms, and accept him/her for who he/she is. I’d also like to see more stories featuring autistic female characters instead of the stereotypical “Big Bang Theory” boys.