All the Things We Don't Talk About by Amy Feltman; Grand Central Publishing; 320 pages; $28
One of humanity’s greatest gifts is the potential to communicate the inner workings of the mind with another. In ancient times, this ability allowed individuals to band together in their fight for survival. Today, this self-awareness is fraught with self-consciousness, oftentimes dismissing communication to the realm of potential rather than reality. In her novel All The Things We Don’t Talk About, Amy Feltman presents a fractured family plagued by relatable communication struggles. Feltman elevates this timeworn storyline by imbuing each member of the family with traits that present deeper challenges to their abilities to communicate with one another. While at times readers may question the turns Feltman’s narrative takes, ultimately these additions act to emphasize the central themes of her work.
Feltman’s novel details the experiences of seventeen year old Morgan, their father Julian, and their mother Zoe. When Zoe returns to New York after abandoning her child and partner over a decade ago, Morgan and Julian’s carefully-crafted existence is eclipsed by Zoe’s self-destructive behavior, a by-product of her drug and alcohol addictions. For Morgan, having Zoe back in their life is both confusing and exciting; Morgan has always respected their father’s silence about Zoe and their past, but now Morgan can’t help the pull of Zoe’s sudden interest and devil-may-care attitude. As Morgan approaches the end of high school, Julian struggles to balance his desire to keep Morgan safe and allow them the freedom to make their own choices. Unfortunately, Julian and Morgan’s delicate relationship is thrown completely off balance by Zoe’s unexpected return.
While a family member’s sudden reappearance would disrupt any family, Feltman introduces additional hurdles which hinder each character’s ability to work through the situation with the others. Julian’s struggles stem from both his role as a single parent and an adult living with Asperger's Syndrome. In the absence of another adult, Morgan often finds themself acting as a caregiver for their father, making them reluctant to discuss the struggles and triumphs of their first romantic relationship since coming out as a genderqueer teen. Zoe’s addictions keep her at arm’s length from her own thoughts, as well as those around her.
Although the characters struggle to reach one another, Feltman keeps readers from enduring the alienation they experience through the unique arrangement of her novel. In an interview with The Rumpus, Feltman described her interest in bringing movement to her first work by presenting her characters’ experiences in alternating chapters. In this second novel, Feltman follows a similar formula by artfully revealing her three characters’ parallel stories in chapters that rotate between each character’s perspective. By doing this, readers gain a more nuanced look into each character’s personal struggles, thus allowing the characters to be understood beyond a central character’s viewpoint.
Feltman’s most accomplished character exploration is that of Julian. Readers are first introduced to Julian through Morgan’s view of him as a man driven by literalism and practicality. In chapters written from Julian’s perspective, the lived experiences of his neurodivergence are there, but they are not the majority of his personality, as Morgan’s perspective suggests. After reading Julian’s first chapter, it becomes clear that Morgan’s perspective of their father is missing key insights Julian cannot and will not divulge, but the reader comes away knowing Julian is above all, a father, not the symptoms of his disorder. He loses sleep worrying about Morgan’s well-being. He cares about their safety. He wants to know they are ok, but doesn’t want to push too hard. These parental concerns weigh most largely in Julian’s chapters. By presenting each of her characters’ experiences with this nuance, Feltman lends grace and solicits empathy for them, leaving the reader with an appreciation for this structure. It also demonstrates Feltman’s desire to give a voice to each character so that they are not reduced by the perceptions of other characters or the preconceived notions readers might bring.
While readers will recognize familiar themes of family, communication, identity, addiction, and abandonment in this novel, Feltman’s narrative structure is not the only thing that makes her novel unique. At first some readers may find Morgan’s involvement in a catfishing scheme and Julian’s penpal exchange with Zoe’s longtime partner unnecessary additions to the already complex family dynamic at the heart of the book. However, these additional plot points emphasize the characters’ inability to talk to each other about what they are going through, and demonstrate their desperation to make sense of the events unfolding around them, even at the cost of their personal safety.
All the Things We Don’t Talk About is ultimately a reminder that everyone struggles with communication from time to time, and no family is without complications. By presenting characters that struggle so acutely with sharing their thoughts with one another, Feltman reminds readers that no matter how painful or difficult some things are to discuss, they must be tackled, and that cannot be done alone. It is only when we pierce the wall containing our internal selves and begin to verbalize our experiences with another, that we can start a journey of understanding.