Imagine grocery shopping after work; looking for the perfect microwaveable meal so you get enough nutrition but don’t have to work too hard. Now picture running into your ex. Not just any ex, but the ex you haven’t seen since you tragically broke up ten years ago after a traumatic life event left you both feeling lost and confused. The ex you always wanted to rekindle things with but never knew how.
That’s what happens to Annika in The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves.
Annika and Jonathan meet at chess club during their senior year of college. Annika doesn’t make friends easily and is surprised when, after being paired with Jonathan for a match, he wants to keep playing with her. She isn’t used to change — she’s had the same roommate all four years of school, eats the same meals every day, walks the same paths, and sticks to the same routines — but when Jonathan enters her life, Annika’s life starts to expand in previously unexpected ways.
Graves alternates between the present-day rekindling of Annika and Jonathan’s relationship and the early days in college. She builds up to the traumatic event that led to their eventual demise, but leaves readers who are paying any kind of attention to the date (hint, hint, I was not paying attention), heartbroken with a final twist near the end.
The Girl He Used to Know tackles the difficult subject of what it can be like to have a relationship with someone with autism. Graves describes all of Annika’s behaviors early on without mentioning the disorder. I think by waiting to even mention the word “autism” until very late in the book, Graves forces the reader to understand Annika as a person with a whole host of characteristics that define her rather than simply as a person with autism. She’s capable of taking care of herself, developing relationships, nurturing hobbies, and learning new coping mechanisms. She is not her disorder.
When Annika and Jonathan reconnect 10 years after their break-up, he notices immediately how much she has changed since their last encounter, but with a smile, he also notices that she is the same girl he originally fell in love with. He loves each and every thing that makes her Annika, and that isn’t to say he doesn’t get frustrated just like she does with him, but it’s a true depiction of love to accept someone as they are without trying to change them.
Graves flawlessly demonstrates how much Annika has grown in the last ten years, not through words but actions. When Annika is faced with a challenge, much like she was presented when she and Jonathan broke up, she rises to the occasion. Hope is coursing through her blood, and she picks herself up off of the metaphorical bathroom floor to fight for what she believes in, even after everyone else has given up. The parallels between the two stages of their relationship are perfectly executed to demonstrate the change that can take place in a person with small steps every day.
All in all, Graves’s book is a beautiful story about the love between two people and how timing means everything to the success of a relationship.