Almost perfect novels are rare, so it is always an unexpected pleasure when I discover one. Mary McGarry Morris' A Dangerous Woman is one of those finds. I consider it close to perfect becauses Morris mines the turf she has chosen to write about expertly and exquisitely. She depicts people the way they are and society the way it is. Not how either should be, but how they are. That is the penultimate achievement in writing fiction.
Martha Horgan thrives on routines or falls apart. For her, everything must fit into patterns. Pencils and pens, books and lunch money had to be aligned just so on her desk when she was in school. Everything has a ritual. Before saying anything she considers significant, she must tap her chest several times and take a certain number of breaths. She believes in telling what she thinks is the truth - even when doing so will serve no beneficial purpose. She is chronically unable to distinguish between what really matters and what doesn't.
As if these traits were not enough, Martha hates children, a characteristic bound to get a person in trouble in most societies. Perhaps it is because, in the atavistic way they have, they sense her difference from normal people right away and question or mock her immediately. That results in mutual tormenting that has a 32-year old swatting four-year-olds or throwing rocks at adolescents while walking down the street. Most of the residents of her Vermont town consider Martha, a difficult, even evil, person to be avoided.
Though it is never named in A Dangerous Woman, Martha's symptoms match those of autism, most likely the condition known as Asperger Syndrome. Unable to find any useful treatment for the disorder, Martha's rich aunt, Frances, has given up on resolving her problems. They coexist in a lifestyle characterized by Martha's surliness and punctuated by her ungovernable tantrums.