The premise of Cammie McGovern’s Say What you Will sounds a little bleak. Amy is born with cerebral palsy and needs a walker to get around, a computer talks for her and often her arms and legs seems to have a mind of their own. Matthew suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder that hinders his ability to function in the world around him. When Matthew is hired to be Amy’s peer assistant for their senior year of high school, the two start and unlikely friendship and something more. No spoilers, that’s practically the synopsis on the back of the book.
Amy seems to be a disabled teen who is almost too well adjusted. She is extremely bright and not at all resentful of her physically limitations. Everyone thinks that Amy is stoic, brave and happy. Everyone except Matthew. Matthew was an average kid of nominal popularity until the end of middle school when puberty infected his small group of friends like a plague leaving Matthew behind mentally if not physically. While his former friends are busy hooking up at parties, Matthew is washing his hands obsessively and avoiding human contact. After yet another of Amy’s award winning student essay on how lucky she is to be blessed with the life she has, Matthew finally says what no one else will: bullshit. No well-adjusted person with Amy’s physical limitations would be happy, not if someone like Matthew who’s physically perfect is so miserable. Just before the end of their junior year, Matthew challenges Amy’s to live more in the real world rather than the bubble her parents have created for you and she accepts the challenge by trading in her professional school aids for peer assistants in an attempt to make friends her senior year in preparation for college life.
Amy starts emailing Matthew at the end of summer in preparation for the launch of the peer assistant program that will start senior year. Amy is non-verbal, but she’s extremely articulate. The emails between Matthew and Amy begin tentatively but grow more natural in the days that lead up to the beginning of the school year. Matthew finds that communicating with Amy is easy and not in spite of her disability, but because she’s funny and smart and interesting. Matthew’s quickly finds that his assigned time with Amy is the highlight of his week.
Through the peer assistant program, Amy is interacting with her classmates more than she ever has even though she’s known most of them since elementary school. Yes, all these peers are essentially being paid to be friends with Amy (and paid well) but she doesn’t mind. Amy is opening herself up to new experiences and feeling more alive than she ever has. But as Amy blossoms, Matthew falters. Despite the ease he feels being with Amy, his obsessive compulsive disorder is not getting better, in fact it’s getting worse. Amy may have the outward disabilities, but it is Matthew who lives in a crippled world.
There’s a lot that happens in Say What You Will as Amy and Matthew explore the boundaries of themselves, their relationship and what they can and should mean to each other. We see the characters in Say What You Will try new things, screw up, act out, mature, screw-up some more, but ultimately find their way. At the base of the story are the emails, texts, and letters, both sent and unsent, between Amy and Matthew. These various methods of communication try to convey what is shared between them when their bodies can’t or won’t do the talking. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to say.