My feelings for Clair LaZebnik's books have run from lukewarm to extreme love. I was on the fence about reading Things I Should Have Known because I knew it dealt with autism, and I was worried about how that would go. All her other books I've read have been fluffy, romantic modern Austen retellings. I was thoroughly pulled into this story and characters though. This is definitely on the extreme love end of my LaZebnik book rankings.
Chloe's sister Ivy has autism so even though Ivy is older, Chloe has always felt like the older sibling who has to take care of and watch out for Ivy. When Ivy walks in on Chloe making out with her boyfriend and begins asking a lot of questions about feelings and romance, Chloe thinks Ivy wants a boyfriend. After assessing all of Ivy's friends at her special school, Chloe encourages Ivy to text a boy named Ethan who is also on the spectrum. Ivy agrees to meet with Ethan for yogurt, but only if Chloe goes with her. When they arrive, Chloe finds that Ethan is accompanied by his brother David, the one guy in school she absolutely can not stand. As Ivy and Ethan continue to meet, David and Chloe tag along and discover they have a lot in common. As the friendships between all four of them develop in unexpected ways, Chloe begins to learn more about her sister, herself, and the people around her.
The story is told in Chloe's first person point of view so the way she sees the world affects the way the reader sees the world, but Ivy, David, and Ethan become just as real and nuanced people. So do Chloe's boyfriend James and her best friend Sarah. (The fact I remembered all their names and didn't need to look any of them up speaks volumes about this. I have a hard time remembering the names of secondary characters in contemporary novels.) Chloe is beautiful and popular. She is smart, but she also works hard. To unwind she enjoys gossiping with Sarah and making out with James. She is in every way a typical teen, but she has a maturity about her that comes from years helping Ivy navigate the world. Her sister is the most important thing in the world to Chloe even when she gets frustrated with her. Her quest to help Ivy find love is not entirely selfless as Chloe knows it will give her a little more freedom. But she's not looking for too much freedom. She's making her college plans around how close she can stay to Ivy just in case she needs her.
This book is first and foremost a sibling story. I adore sibling stories and this is a good one, with not one but two sets of very different siblings both with amazing dynamics. Chloe and Ivy have issues at home: their father died shortly after Ivy's diagnosis, they have a new step father Chloe doesn't particularly like, their mother suffered from depression in the past. The girls rely heavily on each other. David and Ethan are much the same. Their mother left after Ethan's diagnosis and their step mother is paranoid their new baby brother will be autistic too. David does pretty much everything with Ethan. David has absolutely no social life because he leaves school to help his brother. And that's it. Because there really is no one else. Chloe is able to have more freedom because she has her mom and step dad, but in David she finds someone her own age who finally really gets what she deals with every day. And he begins to see her in a different light as well. The best part about the dates is watching David and Chloe interact with their siblings and guide them through the world as best they can. These interactions build all four of their characters well. The second best part of the dates is watching the understanding, familiarity, and friendship grow between Chloe and David.
The romantic thread is definitely secondary to the rest of it, but how it develops is interesting and atypical for a YA romance. Chloe is the outgoing, experienced one. She likes boys, kissing, and making out and has had a lot of experience with all of it. David is basically a hermit. Part of that is because of his dedication to Ethan, but a good chunk of it is because deep down he is a socially awkward, arrogant nerd. (So we know how I feel about him.) Their relationship is really a friendship first. The two of them banter with the best of them, but their physical attraction is slower to get going. And their first kiss isn't fabulous because it's David's first kiss ever. (Though Chloe is much delighted with being the instructor in that which was so refreshing to see.)
I can't really assess the portrayal of autism as that is not my lane at all. I love both Ivy and Ethan as characters. They are different people with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. They process and deal with the world in different ways. I thought that the way LaZebnik presented the reactions of people around them in public and how all four teens dealt with this was really enlightening. From my limited perspective, it all felt nuanced and well done.
There is another thing that comes as an element in Ivy's interactions with Ethan that is handled really well too. I don't want to say much about that because of spoilers (but I don't think it's very difficult to figure out once you start reading). I just really enjoyed all the reactions and the events that came out of it made perfect sense.
I recommend this to people who enjoy realistic stories about family, friendship and life.