Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Daniel Isn't Talking
is a novel about a woman who discovers
her young son is autistic. It is taken in part from my own life
as I went through a similar experience five years ago when my
son was diagnosed with autism. About my son: I can tell you I
was certain there was something wrong with him for some time
before the actual diagnosis. I used to ask the doctors about
these obscure symptoms. Why does he walk on his toes, I'd ask.
Why does he grind his teeth like that? Why doesn't he sleep at
night? Or eat for that matter? I mean, surely he should eat? And
why doesn't he talk?
And then one day the answer came and I wished I'd never asked
the questions. "Because he is autistic," I was told.
Autism in a child does not affect only that child. It affects a
whole family. Suddenly, everything in my life was different. My
normally wonderful husband became remote, unhelpful. The only
way I could be sure he took in what I had to say was if I texted
him on his mobile. His relatives went around saying things like,
"Well, we have no history of autism in our family." My own
relatives, who are not warm and fuzzy people, weren't much help
either. My aunt thought it was my own fault for having a baby so
late in life (I was thirty-three). My sister would say things
like, "Wow, he's autistic. So I guess you're going to have to do
something with him."
Do something with him? I hate to think what she had in mind.
But, yes, I had to do something. And just like the character
Melanie in Daniel Isn't Talking
I found myself scrambling
to figure out what.
But of course, the novel is not a memoir, and what Melanie does
in Daniel Isn't Talking
ends up being far more
entertaining than anything in my actual life. Take, for example,
the rather delicious Irish guy with whom she falls in love. I
can tell you no such man has ever entered my house. I guess
that's just as well because my husband is in my house.
Eventually he de-thawed and returned to being the nice guy he
In fact, very few of the events of the novel ever happened in my
life, but the great thing about fiction is that you can take
subject matter as difficult as that in Daniel Isn't Talking
and fill it with humor, with surprises, with events that escort
the reader gently through the minefield which has become these
characters' lives. I positively loved writing the novel and I
feel a particular affinity to it. I admire the main character,
Melanie. She was so much braver than I was at the time of my
son's diagnosis. I fell in love with the therapist who shows her
how to teach her son. And of course the Daniel in the novel is
so much like my own son, Nicholas, and brought back memories of
the day Nicky finally said his first word at the age of three
years and two months and how hard he fought to learn the simple
things that other children take for granted.
So, this is an important book for me. The latest statistics
reveal that one in every 165 families has a child on the
autistic spectrum, so I know that the book is going to touch the
hearts of many people. I hope it will also touch parents who
find that it is sometimes difficult to connect with their
For more information on Autism or to make a donation to Autism
Research please contact Autism Speaks at
are occasional flashbacks throughout the novel that give a
glimpse of what Melanie was like before she had children. How
would you describe her character before she became a mother? How
has she changed?
- Melanie and Stephen's house empties out of possessions as
Melanie sells their things to pay for Daniel's various therapies
and other needs. What does Melanie mean when she says, "I'm in a
different market than the rest of the world"?
- How are the subjects of race and class treated in the
- Andy says he understands Melanie as an "autism mom." What
is the implication of this term? How might Andy's perception of
"autism moms" be different than that of most people Melanie
- When Melanie tells Veena about Daniel's diagnosis, she
makes an outright appeal for Veena's compassion and sympathy.
Instead, Veena says, "You are a white woman living in a white
woman's paradise. This is not the worst thing that can happen."
What does Veena mean by this and why would Melanie find the
- How do you describe the connection between Melanie and Veena? How are these apparently very different women similar?
What about their circumstances helps them to understand each
other? Would they have been friends if Daniel were normal?
- Early in the novel Melanie thinks she may be "unstable."
Would you agree with that? Following Daniel's diagnosis, does
she seem more or less "stable" to the world around her? To you
- On the morning of Daniel's diagnosis Melanie's immediate
reaction to the diagnosis is to say, "I feel that a change has
taken place. I cannot help but feel as though I started the
journey this morning with my beloved little boy and am returning
with a slightly alien, uneducable time bomb." How has Daniel's
diagnosis temporarily changed his mother's perception of him?
What examples can be seen of her resisting this changed
perception? How has Stephen's view of his son been altered by
- How does Daniel's diagnosis affect his sister, Emily? In
what ways does Melanie try to shield Emily from the full
implications of having a brother with autism? In what ways is
she successful? In what ways is she not successful?
- In what ways was Stephen's departure useful in helping
Daniel? In the long run, was Stephen's departure a good thing
for Daniel? For Emily? How might things have been different for
the children if Stephen had stayed?
- At the end of the novel Melanie states that Stephen "has
shifted all blame for our marriage onto me. On to my whims and
desires. At the same time he has cleverly cast his bid. He is
smart. Maybe that is what I found so attractive about him. I do
not find it so attractive now." How has Stephen made Melanie
feel responsible for the failure of their marriage? Do you think
she is to blame?
- Melanie says that Andy "has touched a part of me that was
dying and brought it to life once more. This belongs to him."
What does Melanie means by this statement? What is the unusual
nature of Melanie and Andy's connection and deepening
relationship? What do they know about each other's families and
backgrounds? Does this matter?
- In Chapter 23 Melanie sees a group of young women at a
bus stop. About one of them she says, "I want to tell her that
she is a woman of great virtue. A woman of grace. That I admire
her. And that I see her differently than perhaps she sees
herself. Now that I have truly seen her, now that I have taken
notice." In what sense has Melanie "truly seen" this young
woman? What stops her from speaking to the woman?
- How is the reader's experience of the novel affected by
the knowledge that Marti Leimbach, herself, is an "autism mom?"
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.