Loved it. I understand people's hesitations with the subject matter, but I thought the author handled them beautifully--with respect and compassion and a great deal of subtle insight. Though I did cry, I did not find the book overly sentimental at all. Understandably, there is not much in the way of irony to offset the sweet or emotional elements, but for once instead of being manipulative or cheap, I found those elements deeply true to the story--in fact, though I'm sort of shocked to be saying this, I found that the sentimental aspects of this book were those that most challenged me.
Ethan's mother describes his world as black and white." I would probably use the word "literal"--subtle or inferred meanings, sarcasm, nuances, things outside his own experience are almost impossible for Ethan to understand. There is definitely an innocence to him, and he requires help and reassurance with tasks that most adults perform independently. It's understandable to feel conflicted about Ethan's relationships because these are qualities that we often describe as "childlike" (though in my own experience few if any children are actually like that at all unless they have special circumstances like Ethan's). In any case, I really appreciated how the book forced me to think through the problems with applying the word "childlike" to Ethan. Our discomfort is real but also needed to be faced: as his mother says, Ethan is an adult male, with adult urges. Denying him this central and joyful part of human experience just feels wrong, especially since Ethan's own desires are very strong. Too many other things were taken away from him because of his injuries. I think the author made a good choice having Ethan be 18 when he was hurt. Judging from his family's attitudes and Ethan's own confidence, it's a safe guess that he was already sexually active "Before." There are clearly risks to sexual activity since he can be taken advantage of and he has trouble remembering the rules of appropriate behavior, but I think his parents were right to treat his sexuality like they do his troubles washing his hair or finding a job that works for him--as part of the process of his carving out a new life for himself after his injuries.
I was really impressed with how Loveless handled the family part. Obviously, his parents are two very admirable people, but they did not feel unreasonably wishful to me--maybe the better word was hopeful. They're hippies to begin with and they've had ten years to come to terms with what happened to their son. She also avoided the tendency to hyper-articulate, therapeutic monologuing that too often accompanies stories where characters are recovering from traumatic events; those speeches too often cross the line into moralizing and they always kill the realism for me. If Liz and Nolan sounded a little pat when discussing Ethan's situation, it makes sense since they've obviously had to explain it many times.
That leaves Carter, who was trickiest, but I thought Loveless totally succeeded in making me understand and accept his choices. I've read several other books in the last year where the MC's occupy what I'll call radically different mental spaces (Glitterland and Muscling Through, to name two), and to my surprise, I found Ethan and Carter's relationship made the most sense to me. There was something very complementary in their challenges. Ethan has real limitations but thanks to his personality he is able to push through them to the greatest extent possible. Carter is the exact opposite: far more than any physical problem, his emotional response to his condition is what cripples him. He desperately needs acceptance; Ethan comes as close as is humanly possible to offering Carter a life where his Tourette's is simply a non-issue. Though Carter might have to take care of Ethan in more ways than is usual, in exchange Ethan can give Carter a much fuller existence than he has been able to have so far. (I'd just add it's easy to forget the myriad private ways spouses and lovers take care of each other. People can be far more dysfunctional than their friends realize--unable to take a shower or eat or leave the house, and they depend on their partners to help them through it.)
Like the timing of Ethan's catastrophe, I think it made a big difference to my acceptance that Carter is so isolated. Almost the entire context for his relationship with Ethan is provided by Ethan's family and friends, who are understandably encouraging. Ethan already has a place with them, and it makes sense that they would easily accept Carter's differences. Ethan obviously does much better with people who are familiar with him and his quirks. It's easy to imagine it being a disaster if Ethan had been thrown into uncontrolled situations with people he didn't know--and without really knowing Ethan and seeing the nuances of his situation (in other words, by reading this book) most people wouldn't be able to accept his relationship with Carter. As things stood, Carter only had to win over Alice, who like Ethan's family has strong reasons for wanting Carter to find love and happiness.
I'm probably not focusing enough on the downsides to it, and I honestly can't imagine being in a relationship like this myself, but the issues did not trouble me while I was reading. I'm enough of a romantic to cleave to the idea that true love comes in a multitude of forms, and I'm deeply grateful to Ryan Loveless for creating such an unusual and beautiful example here.