Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff Book Review

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Publisher: Philomel
Release Date: June 12, 2014

Albie has never been the smartest kind in his class. He almost passes, but as his father says, almost isn't enough. And it seems that everything Albie does is 'almost'. When Albie is kicked out of his old school, his best friend becomes part of a reality show, and he gets a new nanny/babysitter, Albie finds himself looking for something that he can be good at. Can he be the cool kid in school? Run for class vice-president?

After finishing this book, I really debated with myself about whether I should review it. I am aware that sometimes authors, editors, marketing departments, and agents read reviews and I wasn't sure if I should review something in which I have so many issues. However, because my readers have stated in the past that they appreciate my candor, I am going to plunge forward. If you are one of the aforementioned parties, may I suggest not reading this review. After all, there are many people who loved this book, it has a decent score on Goodreads, and I am sure you are already receiving letters from kids who tell you how much they can relate. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I think the best way to dissect this book is to break it into manageable pieces:

The Kid
Albie really is not very bright. I am not sure if this is what the author was trying to convey, but the non-committal to any kind of learning disability made Albie seem less disabled and more mediocre. Perhaps the author was going for something on the spectrum, but again, without a diagnosis (which seemed so unbelievable with a kid who has this many problems) it just came across as a kid who wasn't too bright. This did make me feel bad for Albie. He's a good kid, but he is completely and utterly clueless. While most kids have figured out bullies by the time they are ten, Albie is blissfully unaware of them. He can't figure out why the last school kicked him out although by the end he does figure out that it is because he wasn't smart enough. And he really isn't. Albie struggles to just make C's. There isn't one particular subject he is good at, he is bad at them all. He isn't even aware that the "math club" he is in is really a remedial math class for kids like him. His social awareness is equally terrible as Albie, whether by design or accident, is clearly developmentally delayed. He doesn't think, act, or talk like a child of ten. I would put him in the age seven or eight category. His notes to a classmate on how to be cool made it very clear that Albie is just not at the same level as his peers. It made me sad that no one in his life had noticed and beyond a remedial math course, weren't doing too much to help him.

The Parents
Do you remember the parents in Harriet the Spy? Rich New Yorkers who hired a Nanny to raise their child and didn't really know what Harriet was up to until the very end? These are Albie's parents, but worse. I don't really care if Albie has a nanny. That isn't a big deal. The problem is that his parents are so completely detached from their child that I think it is safe to say that some of his problems could be a direct result of their bad parenting. Albie clearly has some learning difficulties and yet at no point do either of his parents read to or with him, help him with his homework, or even go to the school with him to talk about a plan with his teachers. I was shocked at the scene where Albie takes a dyslexia exam and his mother is disappointed that he isn't dyslexic, as if that would have fixed everything. As if that would have justified why his grades were so terrible.

Other appalling scenes:

  • Albie's mother forgets that egg products are banned from the classroom because of food allergies. No teacher or parent corrects her on this and Albie is forced to bear the brunt of it. This scene almost made me cry because of the cruelty of the situation and the absolute disregard paid by his mother.
  • Albie's father buys him a birthday present and it turns out to be the exact same model airplane kit that he bought Albie a year and a half before, promising he would help him build it.
  • His parents never talk to him about why he was kicked out of his former prep school. Albie has secretly kept the expulsion note from the school, but doesn't read well enough to know why he was kicked out.
  • Appalled by the fact that Albie is reading Captain Underpants (a book that is on his reading level), she forces him to read Johnny Tremain. At no point does she offer to read it with him, follow up on whether he is reading it, ask him questions about it, or show any thought past how it looks that he is reading a "little kid book". 
  • Neither parent has any meaningful communication with him. They are quick to blame him and their clear disapproval of his grades, reading material, and even the school he is at, make Albie feel like a failure.
  • Calista (the Nanny) is fired without Albie being allowed to say goodbye, with the assumption that Calista had lied (she had not). Even when Albie tells his mother the truth, she refuses to allow Calista back or for Albie to have any contact with her. 
  • When Albie's mother says she loves him, his first response is, "You do?" Who says that? A kid who doesn't think his parents love him, that's who. That is sad.

The Nanny
Calista was perhaps the most interesting character in the book. Young, new to the city, and not a stickler for rules, she helps Albie in ways that his parents really should be. She seems almost saintlike compared to the parents as she lets Albie go the places he likes, asks him questions, helps him create a fake cover for Captain Underpants so his mom still thinks he is reading Johnny Tremain, and even gives him a "sad" day. Which makes her firing even worse, because Albie forgives his mother after she gives him some line about how "she is trying her best". Sure he misses her, but he just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. Harriet the Spy took a train across town to find her nanny. Calista showed more care, compassion, and comfort in a few short weeks than either of his parents have shown him. The fact that he got over it so quickly either speaks to Albie's clear problems or some resolution issues in the writing itself.

The Plot
There isn't one. This story is nothing more than s series of vignettes in Albie's life. The common thread of what is Albie good at, the lesson if you will, is a form of resolution but it isn't a plot. Learning disabilities is not a plot either. This is a character-driven piece in which there is very little character growth beyond being able to spell 7 out of 10 words correctly on the spelling test rather than 4. I know this is growth, but it isn't a plot.

The Voice
Albie is whiny. Seriously, my husband walked into the kitchen while I was listening to the audio book and after standing there for a few minutes prepping a snack he said, "God, that kid is really whiny." I have to agree. Albie's world revolves around Albie and so when things happen outside of Albie's understanding (which is often) he moans and complains in a way that made the whole book come across as one giant whine.

Although this book is being compared to Wonder and Rules, with its lack of committal to any kind of disability or learning disability, coupled with some extremely bad parenting, and a lack of a plot, I have to say that it is just not on that level. There are people who love it, I have read their reviews and although I don't agree, I understand.