Are You Alone on Purpose?

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Published by: Originally published by Houghton Mifflin & Penguin; current edition by Nancy Werlin
Release Date: 1994, 2021
Pages: 288



Though fourteen-year-old Alison Shandling is a brain, her twin brother, Adam, is autistic. All of her life, Alison's parents have focused on Adam and what he needs, while Alison has always felt she had to be perfect.


When the rabbi's son, Harry Roth, begins taunting Alison about her brother, she does her best to stand up for herself. But when Harry is injured in a diving accident, Alison senses that he's hiding something that he wants to share with someone. And she begins to think that— strangely—she's just the someone he can share it with . . .


Cover art by Rowan MacColl.


I think that all writers must feel a special kind of tenderness for their first novels. I certainly do for Are You Alone on Purpose? This novel began for me with a vision of a single pivotal scene: the one, early on in the book, in which Alison's mother “curses” Rabbi Roth for his decision not to enroll Alison's brother in Hebrew School. I had a vision of her screaming . . . and of Alison watching, listening, keeping her thoughts very private.

Of all the characters I've created, Alison Shandling is the closest on the surface to who and what I was at her age. But I made her smarter than me—both intellectually and emotionally. And I made her braver. She needs every bit of that courage, I think. With the plot of Are You Alone, I was trying quite deliberately to come up with a situation that would force Alison to confront her parents about her own needs, and that would also cause her to muse for the first time (but, I hope, not the last), on the place of God in the universe, given that the world contains so much pain and suffering.

Alison's enemy and sweetheart, Harry Roth, remains a bit of a puzzle to me. He is a whirling dervish of pain himself, and I am still both incredulous and amused that Alison finds him so compelling. But she does. I retain a bit of nervousness for her, for her fearlessness in this regard. But I also think that she knows exactly what she's doing. By the end, I trusted her instinct—and indeed, Harry's.

Finally, I think of both the Shandlings and the Roths as “functional families.” They're not perfect, but they try hard to cope with the difficulties in their lives, and they are all capable of change. And by the end of the book, they've managed, somehow, to communicate across the divides that separate them.

I believe that human beings are capable of understanding each other. I also believe it's hard, hard work. Everyday work. Heroic work.

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“A wonderful first novel.”

“A moving portrayal of two remarkable teenagers.”
—School Library Journal

“A writer worth watching.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Characterizations are superb ...”

“A complex, compelling story.”
—Horn Book

  • A Publishers Weekly Flying Start book
  • An ALA Quick Pick
  • A New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age
  • An ALA Popular Paperback selection


PDF Discussion Guide

Harry walked away, aware that Felicia and her friends were watching, and paused in front of Alison. "Hey, Shandling," he said pleasantly. And then, when she didn’t respond immediately, he raised his voice. "Hey, Shandling!"

She started up from her book like she’d been shot. But she didn’t say anything. She just looked at him like he was an ant.

Harry picked up Alison’s abandoned tray, held it suspended in the air over the floor for three slow seconds, and then let it go. It landed with a dull plastic thud. The seventh graders sitting at Alison’s table looked up and stopped talking.

Harry settled himself on the table in front of Alison, one leg swinging. "Nice hairstyle," he said, reaching down to touch her hair, caught up in a ponytail. She jerked her head away. Harry smiled. "Whatcha reading?"

"Nothing you’d be interested in," she said. Her voice was low, barely audible. "And I’d like to get back to it." She looked down at her book again and made to turn a page. Her hand shook just a little.

Quickly, Harry snagged the book, wresting it easily from her. "But I don’t want to go away," he said. "I want to find out how to be as smart as you are, Ms. Genius Shandling."

She stared at him. She reached for her soda but her hand was still shaking and she didn’t pick it up, just clenched her fingers around it.

"Maybe," said Harry, "if I read the same books as you, I’ll be a genius too. "What do you think?" He flipped the book open. "The Art of Mathematics. Hey! It’s a math book!"

Alison released the cup and made a sudden grab for the book, but Harry held it out of her reach. "Anxious, aren’t we?" he said.

"It’s my father’s," said Alison fiercely. "You give it back."

"Oho," said Harry. He looked up, smiling genially at the kids all around them, who were watching as if this were a circus. "It’s daddy’s book. Well, well. That explains everything, doesn’t it? Genius father gives books to genius child."

Alison grabbed her soda and stood up, turning to walk away. But before she could do more than take a step, Harry slid off the table and moved to block her way. "Hey, what’s the rush? Don’t you want daddy’s book back after all?"

Trapped, Alison fixed her eyes on Harry’s. Then she said, clearly, so that everyone around could hear, "Well, it won’t do you any good."

"No?" Harry took a step closer to Alison and she took a counterstep, backward. "Because you think I’m stupid? Well, tell me something then, Ms. Genius. What’s with your retard twin brother?" He watched, satisfied, as her eyes flickered. "I’ll tell you what I figure. You’re freak twins. You got two brains, and he got none."

Harry saw her shock. He watched, satisfied, as even her lips turned white. And for the merest second he had an odd idea – that what he’d said wasn’t new to her. That she’d thought of it herself.

Then she raised her cup and flung the remains of the soda in his face.