Today’s Book: “A Rational Arrangement” by L. Rowyn
The Plot: A polyamorous romance between two bisexual men and an autistic woman, in a pseudo-Regency low-magic fantasy setting in which both bisexuality and polyamory are unheard of.
Autistic Character(s): The heroine, Wisteria Valsiver.
I have never reviewed a romance starring an autistic person before, and this one did not disappoint. Wisteria, the autistic heroine, is portrayed both as a person who is genuinely different from others and struggles to fit in, and as a romantic and sexual person who is both capable and worthy of love.
(This is not to say that asexual/aromantic autistic people shouldn’t be represented. But we’re all too frequently portrayed as people for whom romance is impossible, either due to internal or external factors – so it’s deeply refreshing to see the reverse.)
Wisteria is an extremely intelligent woman, who has traveled the world and been successful in business, yet who finds the intricate social norms of her pseudo-Regency world baffling. She also, like some real autistic people, has a very flat facial affect. Regardless of what she is really feeling, her face barely moves. Neurotypical characters see her as blank, severe, formal and rigid.
The story alternates between Wisteria’s point of view and those of her two romantic interests. Wisteria’s perspective includes some realistic anguish about the feeling that life is full of rules that she is incapable of understanding even though everyone else does. But it also includes a realistic range of interests and feelings about many other things. When thinking about romance, Wisteria experiences a conflict that I find deeply relatable. She has a great deal of romantic and sexual desire, but doesn’t know what to do with it, especially since the people around her act as though such desires don’t or shouldn’t exist – and also doesn’t know who would ever desire her back.
We also see Wisteria from the point of view of her love interests, which allows for a deep exploration of exactly what these men (who are both NT) find attractive about her. Nik, who is initially put off by Wisteria’s flat affect, soon becomes fascinated by her willingness to speak her mind and ignore taboos. Nik is impatient with the level of pretense and superficiality in society around him and he finds Wisteria refreshing. And while some of Wisteria’s candor is involuntary – caused by an inability to understand which topics are socially acceptable – she also genuinely prefers a frank communication style, which means she and Nik get along well.
Justin, Wisteria and Nik’s other love interest, doesn’t analyze his attraction to Wisteria as much. Unlike Nik, Justin is someone who thrives on superficial social connection and uses its superficiality as a defense mechanism. He’s at a bit of a loss at first when trying to communicate with Wisteria. But he’s fascinated by her, particularly when she displays analytical intelligence and courage – both traits he more often associates with men.
These three different perspectives mean the story ends up with a lot of interesting things to say about communication, and about contrasting communication and face needs.
There are also giant talking cats.
Nik, by the way, is a mind-healer – which makes this the second work of fiction I’ve reviewed (after Geometries of Belonging) that portrays a mind-healer’s reaction to an autistic person’s mind. Like Dedéi in Geometries, Wisteria must also deal with a family who would rather make her “normal”. Nik is not pleased when Wisteria’s father asks him to intervene:
The older man scooted to perch at the edge of the couch, lowering his voice. “You know. You saw how she was with you and your parents. That dreadful contract. She doesn’t comprehend that it’s not normal – she’s got this, this—” he broke off, hands waving vaguely.
Nik stared at Vasilver as if he were a new and particularly repulsive kind of bug found crawling on a sleeve. “The technical term you are looking for, sir, is personality.” Icicles dripped from each word.
Vasilver cringed. “Yes, but—”
“I am afraid you have misunderstood the nature of my Blessing. The Savior uses me to heal minds and treat mental illness. Contrary to what you may have been told, a personality is not a disease.”
(Note for squeamish readers: The “Savior” worshipped by Nik and other characters in this setting is not at all related to the Christian god, though this may not be clear in the first few chapters. Another thing that may not be clear early on is the role of demons in Nik’s mind-healing practice. Some mental illnesses, in this setting, are caused by demons, which anyone with Nik’s abilities can drive out. This is the first use of Nik’s abilities which is mentioned in the text. However, it is soon explained that the majority of mental illnesses have more subtle causes. Treating these ones has much more to do with gently encouraging parts of the mind into a different shape, or a different relation with each other.)
If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that it comes down a little too hard on the “a personality is not a disease” side. Wisteria is, by the social model, disabled. She has difficulty facially expressing her emotions, understanding unwritten rules, or engaging in other expected forms of nonverbal communication. She’s marginalized and punished by other characters for these differences. But we never see Wisteria struggling with anything that is not solely socially imposed. She seems to have no difficulties with sensory integration, executive function, or emotional regulation. She is portrayed as a wholly competent, independent person, who would be perfectly capable of doing everything for herself if only people didn’t judge her so harshly.
I don’t want to overstate my problem with this. Some autistic people do fit this profile. It’s not a bad way to be. The problem is that, if poorly handled, a story that solely portrays autism in this way can verge on Aspie supremacy. It can promote acceptance of highly intelligent, hypercompetent autistic people – even admiration – but at the cost of ignoring any genuine support needs that these highly intelligent people might have – and of leaving in the dust all the other autistic people who aren’t able to present themselves as being superintelligent in this way.
A Rational Arrangement avoids the worst sorts of Aspie supremacy, but there are times when it verges close enough to make me slightly uncomfortable. One scene that particularly troubles me is when Nik magically examines Wisteria’s mind. He finds that she is the way she is because the mental structure for rationality is overgrown compared to a neurotypical person, and is connected intimately to everything else in her mind.
Nik does not conclude that Wisteria is somehow superior to other people. (He prefers her to most other people, but since he winds up marrying her, this is entirely natural and necessary.) But the idea that the difference between autistic and normal people comes from rationality – that we are simply more logical than others, and all our difference stems from this – doesn’t sit well with me. It is a point of view too often caught up in internalized ableism and in ableist (and sexist, racist, capitalist) viewpoints about what is and isn’t rational. These viewpoints can, in turn, end up harming other autistic people who are less able to express themselves in a way that NTs recognize as rational or logical, and sowing discord between “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autistics. Rowyn’s narration is never blatantly supremacist, but it doesn’t do quite as much to distance itself from these viewpoints as I would have liked.
I do not think this is at all intentional on Rowyn’s part. I suspect that she simply didn’t know how loaded a term like “rational” can be in a disability context.
Anyway, for the most part, I really liked the book. Wisteria is a well-drawn, three-dimensional character whose experience of the world rings true to me. The romance is adorable and compelling, all three of the characters had me invested in their struggles, and the setting is pleasant to read about. We definitely need more autistic characters who are allowed to explore love and passion as Wisteria does, whether it makes sense to the NTs around them or not.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.