Review: Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin


Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: April 12th 2016 by Putnam
Source: Publisher

When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.

That’s how I ended up in New York City.

Counting Thyme is about Thyme who moves with her family from California to New York so her brother can be part of the experimental treatment for his cancer. Thyme’s brother, five year old Val, has neuroblastoma, nerve cancer, and doctors have told Thyme’s parents of a new drug that Val is qualified to take. The only catch is they have to move to New York in order to be part of the trials. Thyme obviously doesn’t want to move away from her friends, grandma, house, and life but she loves her brother and she takes her responsibilities as his sister seriously so she accompanies her family without complaining.

Everything in new in New York and not always for the better. The apartment they’re staying in is tiny and Thyme has to share a room with her older sister, Cori, who is quickly turning into a monster as she becomes a teenager. Her parents give the lion’s share of their attention to Val. School is horrible and Thyme is aware she doesn’t fit in at all. Her best friend back home seems to be moving on and finding new friends. Val is in pain and her parents are keeping secrets about his condition from Thyme and her sister.

Thyme has a deal with her parents: if she does something good or runs an errand and helps out, her parents give her a slip of paper with some time written on it. Say half an hour or an hour. Thyme can use the time she earns to do things she wants to like surf the internet or go out some place. When the situation in New York starts becoming difficult, Thyme decides that she is going to collect her time until she has enough to return home. Surely her parents can’t say no if she continues being good and continues being understanding.

The book is beautifully written. Conklin shows a tumultuous time in Thyme’s life–everything is falling apart for her–but at the same time, she brings in other characters and events that show how life keeps going on even when things are difficult. I most loved the bond between Val and Thyme. There are some truly poignant moments where Val cannot understand why he has to endure such pain and why he has to go through with the treatments. Thyme’s parents are unable to deal with Val because they are arrested by their own helplessness but Thyme understands Val on a much deeper level–as only one child can understand another–and she gets through to him when no one else can.

The side characters are also wonderfully individuated. The grouchy man downstairs who always seems to have a problem with Thyme and her family, their wonder-cook-helper Mrs. Ravelli, Thyme’s new classmates and even that boy who makes Thyme feel funny–these characters all come together to create a wonderfully alive story that pulses on its own. Thyme’s relationship with her parents is fraught with resentment and sorrow because her parents are only human–this fact especially is delineated once and again–and sometimes make less than smart choices. Thyme, on the other hand, is remarkably mature for her age and perhaps that was the one sticking point with me. At times it seems that Thyme is asked to carry a heavier load than she ought to be carrying and though she hold up her end, I feel like this might not be all that realistic. But then, maybe circumstances have changed her enough–it is difficult to think about running away back to California when your brother is so ill.

Cori, too, is satisfyingly drawn and her conflicts with her parents are an echo of the problems troubling Thyme. There is a definite, and intentional, lack of communication between the parents and their kids. Not gonna lie, I would have been incensed by some of the parents’ actions and it is amazing that Thyme kept it together.

That said, Counting Thyme is a beautiful story about hope, love, and family. Conklin doesn’t offer any miracles at the end of it but neither does she discount the possibility of miracles. Thyme’s story is told with a lot of heart and is one that will make you hug your siblings and your parents extra tightly. Strongly recommended.

6 responses to “Review: Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

  1. This book definitely sounds like one I would’ve picked up before I had children. Now, I have a harder time with books that deal with the types of issues this book raises, though I am encouraged that it doesn’t “discount the possibility of miracles.” We’ll see. I’m going to consider this one (thanks to your excellent review).

    • I can totally understand your reluctance. I have two little kids (a niece and nephew) growing up around me and it’s difficult to imagine something like this happening to them. Still, the story’s primary message is hope and I think it will be a good tale for those who may be going through something similar.

  2. I remember this from The Cover Wars . . . perhaps it’s a go now that I’ve seen a review :)

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