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*Starred Review* This year's winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a mighty first novel by a Chicago playwright and disabilities-rights activist. Nussbaum's dramatist skills translate powerfully into fiction as she gives voice to an infatuating cast of characters assembled in the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, a nursing home for young people with physical and mental challenges. Yessina Lopez is an assertive and giving teen whose wheelchair does not inhibit her quest for autonomy and love. There is courtly romance between Teddy Dobbs, the only resident whose father visits, and sweet and severely abused cerebral palsy sufferer Mia Oviedo. Smart and wittily sarcastic Joanne Madsen, who uses a wheelchair with aplomb ever since being hit by a city bus, is the center's new data-entry clerk, and she becomes sharply attuned to the tender hearts of the kids and the indifference, even malevolence, of the administrators. The center's bus driver, Ricky Hernandez, also cares passionately for his young charges and worries about their treatment. Nussbaum charms, outrages, and enlightens readers as she cycles among these and other characters, boldly contrasting the transcendence of love with the harsh realities of a negligent for-profit nursing home. This is unquestionably an authentic, galvanizing, and righteous novel.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist
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Playwright Nussbaum's debut novel-the 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver's PEN/Bellwether Prize-takes readers behind the scenes at a facility for disabled teens. Woven from short individual chapters in first-person narrative, at first it reads like a series of darkly funny, often frightening character sketches. As the book progresses, however, the darker side of the facility's management and desire for profit emerges. From Yessenia (transferred from Juvie), to Mia (keeping a horrifying secret), to Ricky and Joanne (devoted and determined to make a positive difference), to Michelle (working for the management company and slowly growing aware of what her job entails), these individuals are complicated, funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. How they are pushed beyond breaking points and emerge into the wider world is captivating. Nussbaum's obvious gifts as a playwright make this read more like a performance piece than a novel. Some of the cadence and vernacular choices can distract, as can the use of the present tense, but the book offers insight into the lives of those hidden away from the public, and it will have readers questioning "the system's" choices and the public's complacency. This is a stirring debut from a determined writer and activist. (May 28) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.