Saving Max by Conor MacCarthy Sep03


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Saving Max by Conor MacCarthy

Max Parkman is not a normal sixteen-year-old. He’s got Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) and he’s been accused of murder. His mother, Danielle, will stop at nothing to make sure that he doesn’t end up in jail, or worse. She’ll do anything to save him. No matter what the personal cost…

This is the basic outline of Saving Max, a 2010 debut novel written by American author Antoinette van Heugten.

I was grocery shopping two Wednesdays ago, not even looking for a book to read, when I found this treasure. Maybe it’s because of the cover or the awesome title or maybe it’s because I came across this book on the Internet a year ago, when I was checking up a list of Aspergers-related books that I should read some time, but something made me pick up this book -and I’m so glad I did. I’ve never read a legal thriller before but I did like the legal thriller in the final season of Depserate Housewives. I also love anything got to do with autistic teenagers (whose brains tick in a totally different way than their relatively boring, neurotypical counterparts) and, as my Bates Motel review shows, I also like things got to do with teenagers who’ve probably caused murder. So I immediately bought this book. It doesn’t disappoint -at all.


I won’t give away the ending of this book, seeing as its success depends on the mystery element, but the plot of this book is well-crafted, surprisingly so for such a novice author. Many stories start off very slowly (anyone who’s tried reading the opening chapters of Stephen King’s The Stand will know exactly what I mean: it starts off slower than the Playstation’s loading-screens) but van Heugten gets to the good stuff right away. The prologue shows Danielle running into a room, seeing the corpse of a mentally-retarded teenager and the breathing body of her own boy lying several feet away, holding the murder weapon.

The opening chapter, the events of which precede the prologue, show Max’s behaviour worsening and his doctor telling Danielle that he needs to be taken to Maitland Asylum for testing. Van Heugten immediately has the reader’s attention in her grasp. And she doesn’t let go.

The first part of the book outlines the events leading up to the murder. Max is sent to Maitland and he’s becoming increasingly violent. His team of doctors, said to be “the best in the country”, give Danielle a diagnosis that she refuses to accept and the following scene is one of the most emotional I’ve read. (“Cover the glass with a black shawl / There’s been a death in the family.”) Then, of course, comes the murder. Seeing Max (who’s having one of his many unconscious moments, due to his medication) with the murder weapon, and knowing the grudge he holds against the victim, Danielle panics. She stores the weapon and Max’s bloodied clothes in the purse and attempts to drag him away from the crime scene when one of the nurses comes in and sees them.

The second part of the novel sees Danielle thrown into jail for being an accomplice to murder and for trying to hide the evidence. Max is locked away from Maitland and, although Danielle’s released on bond, she’s not allowed to visit him. Danielle entrusts the help of a lawyer and a retired detective to help her search for clues that may show that there’s another murder suspect but their case looks dim: all evidence points to the fact that Max commited the murder. Desperate, Danielle starts breaking the law doing whatever it takes to try and save her son.

The third part of the novel features the court-trial. The interactions between all the key characters are at their best here and the ending of the novel is incredible.


Danielle is the lead-character. She’s a lawyer (with knowledge borne from the author’s own experience as a lawyer) and an absolutely devoted mother. It’s extremely satisfying to see the love she has for her child, seeing as so many a mother does become resentful of her child when she finds out that he’ll never be normal. The lengths that Danielle goes to to try and save Max is very emotional and it’s obvious that she’d rather kill herself than live with the guilt of being
unable to stop her son from being sent to jail. She does become angry in certain parts of the novel (such as her anger towards the doctors and the misogynistic lawyers at her firm) but it’s only to be expected from a mother who goes through as much as she does. In the ranks of Lady Macbeth, Danielle is one of the most powerful female lead-characters I’ve read about. She is highly believable and it’s impossible not to feel pity for her.

We also feel sorry for Max. He goes through hell at Maitland and then, on top of all that, he gets accused of murder. Whether he did it or not, we do feel sorry for him. He has no recollection of the event and he’s absolutely confused and terrified. We also feel sorry for him as he’s missing a father-figure. Of all the characters, he’s the one to whom I find it easiest to relate: not only because of his Asperger’s and everything that goes with that but also because he’s very well learned when it comes to computers. This, above anything, helps us realise that he is a teenager, obsessed with the latest fads, even if he doesn’t really have anyone to share his skills with. It’s good to see this “normal teenager” side to him, seeing as the situation in which he finds himself is anything but normal.

There are many other memorable characters in the story but to critique them all would be to give away the ending. Instead, I’ll just give an honorary mention of one of my favourite characters – Doakes, the retired detictive. A fan of drink, he provides much-needed comic relief during the more intense parts of the novel.


The writing of the novel is almost flawless. I did have to check the dictionary several times for the meanings of a few words but these were due to my own lack of legal vocabulary rather than van Heugten trying to boast of her own linguistic skills. The pacing of the novel is very good and, while Max’s symptoms might seem a little over-the-top at the beginning, everything makes sense in the end. It’s a highly clever tale and reads like it was written by a long-published author, rather than a novice. It’s obvious that van Heugten’s put in a lot of effort into making this novel be so good (an e-mail conversation I had with her reveals that she rewrote it twenty-three times!) and it does pay-off -one of the most exciting tales I’ve read and the first novel since the final Harry Potter to make me realise what the saying “edge-of-your-seat” actually means. Why isn’t this book more popular?!

The only criticism I have of the book is a small one: some of the things Danielle does to save Max, and the legal aftermath of these actions, are a little unrealistic. But that’s only a small criticism and it doesn’t detract from the quality of the book.


Saving Max is an incredible novel. The ending couldn’t have been more satisfying; the characters are amazing; and there are several tear-jerker moments (which is odd as I rarely feel so emotional over novels). Also, the conversation I had with the author revealed that we definitely haven’t heard the last of her and her novels. She’s an author worth noting.


Presentation: 10 – it made me want to get the book, with a suitably simple cover and an amazing title.

Plot: 10-I really can’t think how the plot of this book could have been better.

Characters:7 – loses a few marks because some of the minor characters are flat. Reyes-Moreno, who I somehow keep on thinking is male, is my least favourite.

Flow and writing: 9 – almost flawless. Loses a mark for the unrealistic legal consequences of Danielle’s more extreme actions.

FINAL MARK: 90 – one of the best books I’ve read; one of the only books that I know I’ll want to read again; highly recommended to anyone who calls him/herself a reader.