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Saving Max Paperback – September 28, 2010

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About the Author

Antoinette van Heugten is a former international trial lawyer who retired to pursue a full-time career as a novelist. She lives with her husband in the Texas Hill country.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Danielle falls gratefully into the leather chair in Dr. Leonard's waiting room. She has just raced from her law firm's conference room, where she spent the entire morning with a priggish Brit who couldn't imagine that his business dealings across the pond could possibly have subjected him to the indignities of a New York lawsuit. Max, her son, sits in his customary place in the corner of the psychiatrist's waiting room—as far away from her as possible. He is hunched over his new iPhone, thumbs punching furiously. It's as if he's grown a new appendage, so rarely does she see him without it. At his insistence, Danielle also has an identical one in her purse. The faintest shadow of a moustache stains his upper lip, his handsome face marred by a cruel, silver piercing on his eyebrow. His scowl is that of an adult, not a child. He seems to feel her stare. He looks up and then averts his lovely, tenebrous eyes.

She thinks of all the doctors, the myriad of medications, the countless dead ends, and the dark, seemingly irreversible changes in Max. Yet somehow the ghost of her boy wraps his thin, tanned arms around her neck—his mouth cinnamon-sweet with Red Hots—and plants a sticky kiss on her cheek. He rests there a moment, his small body breathing rapidly, his heart her metronome. She shakes her head. To her, there is still only one Max. And in the center of this boy lies the tenderest, sweetest middle—her baby, the part she can never give up.

Her eyes return to the present Max. He's a teenager, she tells herself. Even as the hopeful thought flits across her mind, she knows she is lying to herself. Max has Asperger's Syndrome, high-functioning autism. Although very bright, he is clueless about getting along with people. This has caused him anguish and heartache all his life.

When he was very young, Max discovered computers. His teachers were stunned at his aptitude. Now sixteen, Danielle still has no idea of the extent of Max's abilities, but she knows that he is a virtual genius—a true savant. While this initially made him fascinating to his peers, none of them could possibly maintain interest in the minutiae Max droned on about. People with Asperger's often wax rhapsodic about their specific obsessions—whether or not the listener is even vaguely interested in the topic. Max's quirky behavior and learning disabilities have made him the object of further ridicule. His response has been to act out or retaliate, although lately it seems that he has just withdrawn further into himself, cinching thicker and tighter coils around his heart.

Sonya, his first real girlfriend, broke up with him a few months ago. Max was devastated. He finally had a relationship—like everybody else—and she dumped him in front of all his classmates. Max became so depressed that he refused to go to school; cut off contact with the few friends he had; and started using drugs. The latter she discovered when she walked into his room unannounced to find Max staring at her coolly—a joint in his hand; a blue, redolent cloud over his head; and a rainbow assortment of pills scattered carelessly on his desk. She didn't say a word, but waited until he took a shower a few hours later and then confiscated the bag of dope and every pill she could find. That afternoon she dragged him—cursing and screaming—to Dr. Leonard's office. The visits seemed to help. At least he had gone back to school and, in an odd way, seemed happier. He was tender and loving toward Danielle—a young Max, eager to please. As far as the drugs went, her secret forays into his room turned up nothing. That wasn't to say, of course, that he hadn't simply moved them to school or a friend's house.

But, she thinks ruefully, recent events pale in comparison to what brings them here today. Yesterday after Max left for school and she performed her daily search-and-seizure reconnaissance, she discovered a soft, leather-bound journal stuffed under his bed. Guiltily, she pried open the metal clasp with a paring knife. The first page so frightened her that she fell into a chair, hands shaking. Twenty pages of his boyish scrawl detailed a plan so intricate, so terrifying, that she only noticed her ragged breathing and stifled sobs when she looked around the room and wondered where the sounds were coming from. Did the blame lie with her? Could she have done something differently? Better? The old shame and humiliation filled her.

The door opens and Georgia walks in. A tiny blonde, she sits next to Danielle and gives her a brief, strong hug. Danielle smiles. Georgia is not only her best friend—she is family. As an only child with both parents gone, Danielle has come to rely upon Georgia's unflagging loyalty and support, not to mention her deep love for Max. Despite her sweet expression, Georgia has the quick mind of a tough lawyer. Their law firm is Blackwood & Price, a multinational firm with four hundred lawyers and offices in New York, Oslo and London. She is typically in her office by now—seated behind a perfectly ordered desk, a pile of finished work at her elbow. Danielle can't remember when she has been so glad to see someone. Georgia gives Max a wave and a smile. "Hi, you."

"Hey." The monosyllabic task accomplished, he closes his eyes and slouches lower into his chair.

"How is he?" asks Georgia.

"Either glued to his laptop or on that damned phone of his," she whispers. "He doesn't know I found his…journal. I'd never have gotten him here otherwise."

Georgia squeezes her shoulder. "It'll be all right. We'll get through this somehow."

"You're so wonderful to come. I can't tell you how much it means to me." She forces normality into her voice. "So, how did it go this morning?"

"I barely got to court in time, but I think I did okay."

"What happened?"

She shrugs. "Jonathan."

Danielle squeezes her hand. Her husband, Jonathan, although a brilliant plastic surgeon, has an unquenchable thirst that threatens to ruin not only his marriage, but his career. Georgia suspects that he is also addicted to cocaine, but has voiced that fear only to Danielle. No one at their law firm seems to know, despite his boorish behavior at the last Christmas party. The firm, an old-line Manhattan institution, does not look kindly upon spousal comportment that smacks of anything other than the rarified, blue-blooded professionals they believe themselves to be. With a two-year-old daughter, Georgia is reluctant to even consider divorce.

"What was it this time?" asks Danielle.

Her azure eyes are nubilous. "Came in at four; passed out in the bathtub; pissed all over himself."

"Oh, God."

"Melissa found him and came crying into the bedroom." Georgia shakes her head. "She thought he was dead."

This time it is Danielle who does the hugging.

Georgia forces a smile and turns her gaze upon Max, who has sunk even lower into his leather chair and appears to be asleep. "Has the doctor read his journal?"

"I'm sure he has," she says wearily. "I messengered it to him yesterday."

"Have you heard from the school?"

"He's out." Max's principal had politely suggested to Danielle that another "environment" might be more "successful" in meeting Max's "challenges." In other words, they want him the hell out of there.

Max's Asperger's has magnified tenfold since he became a teenager. As his peers have graduated to sophisticated social interaction, Max has struggled at a middle-school level. Saddled with severe learning disabilities, he stands out even more. Danielle understands it. If you are incessantly derided, you cannot risk further social laceration. Isolation at least staunches the pain. And it isn't as if Danielle hasn't tried like hell. Max had cut a swath through countless schools in Manhattan. Even the special schools that cater to students with disabilities had kicked him out. For years she had beaten paths to every doctor who might have something new to offer. A different medication. A different dream.

"Georgia," she whispers. "Why is this happening? What am I supposed to do?" She looks at her friend. Sadness is one emotion they mirror perfectly in one another's eyes. Danielle feels the inevitable pressure at the back of her eyes and fiddles with the hem of her skirt. There's a thread that won't stay put.

"You're here, aren't you?" Georgia's voice is a gentle spring rain. "There has to be a solution."

Danielle clenches her hands as the tears come hard and fast. She glances at Max, but he is still asleep. Georgia pulls a handkerchief from her purse. Danielle wipes her eyes and returns it. Without warning, Georgia reaches over and pushes up the sleeve of Danielle's blouse—all the way to the elbow. Danielle jerks her arm back, but Georgia grabs her wrist and pulls her arm toward her. Long, red slashes stretch from pulse to elbow.

"Don't!" Danielle yanks her sleeve down, her voice a fierce whisper. "He didn't mean it. It was just that one time—when I found his drugs."

Georgia's face is full of alarm. "This can't go on—not for him and not for you."

Danielle jerks back her arm and fumbles furiously with her cuff. The scarlet wounds are covered, but her secret is no longer safe. It is hers to know; hers to bear.

"Ms. Parkman?" The bland, smooth voice is straight from central casting. The short haircut and black glasses that frame Dr. Leonard's boyish face are cookie-cutter perfect—a walking advertisement for the American Psychiatric Association.

Still panicked by Georgia's discovery, she wills herself to appear normal. "Good morning, Doctor."

He regards her carefully. "Would you like to come in?"

Danielle nods, hastily gathering her things. She feels hot crimson flush her face.

"Max?" asks Dr. Leonard.

Barely awake, Max shrugs. "Whatever." He struggles to his feet and reluctantly follows Dr. Leonard down the hall.

Danielle flings a terrified glance at Georgia. She feels like a deer trapped in a barbed-wire fence, its slender leg about to snap.

"Don't worry." Georgia's gaze is blue and true. "I'll be here when you get back."

She takes a deep breath and straightens. It is time to walk into the lion's den.

Danielle files into the room after Max and Dr. Leonard. She takes in the sleek leather couch with a kilim pillow clipped to it and the obligatory box of tissues prominent on the stainless steel table. She walks to a chair and sits. She is dressed in one of her lawyer outfits. This is not where she wants to wear it.

Max sits in front of Dr. Leonard's desk, his chair angled away from them. Danielle turns to Dr. Leonard and gives him a practiced smile. He smiles back and inclines his head. "Shall we begin?"

Danielle nods. Max is silent.

Dr. Leonard adjusts his glasses and glances at Max's journal. Dense notes cover his yellow pad. He looks up and speaks in a soft voice. "Max?"

"Yeah?" His scowl speaks volumes.

"We need to discuss something very serious."

Dr. Leonard takes a deep breath and fixes Max with his gaze. "Have you been having thoughts of suicide?"

Max starts and looks accusingly at Danielle. "I don't know what in the hell you're talking about."

"Are you sure?" Leonard's voice is gentle. "It's safe here, Max. You can talk about it."

"No way. I'm gone." Just as he starts for the door, he catches a glimpse of the leather journal on the corner of Leonard's desk. He freezes. His face a boiling claret, he whips around and shoots Danielle a look of pure hatred. "Goddammit! That's none of your fucking business!"

Her heart feels as if it will burst. "Sweetheart, please let us help you! Killing yourself is not the answer, I promise you." Danielle rises and tries to embrace him.

Max shoves her so hard that she slams her head against the wall and slides to the floor. "Max—no!" she cries. His eyes widen in alarm, and for a moment, he reaches out to her, but then lurches back; grabs the journal; and bolts out of the room. The slamming of the door splits the air.

Dr. Leonard rushes over to Danielle; helps her to her feet; and guides her gently to a chair. She shakes all over. Leonard then takes a seat and looks gravely at her over his glasses. "Danielle, has Max been violent at home?"

Danielle shakes her head too quickly. The scars on her arm seem to burn. "No."

He sits quietly and then puts his notes into a blue folder. "Given Max's clinical depression, suicidal ideations and volatility, we have to be realistic about his needs. He requires intensive treatment by the best the profession has to offer. My recommendation is that we act immediately."

She tries not to let him see that her breathing has become irregular. Like an animal trapped in another's lair, she has to be extremely careful about her reaction. "I'm not certain what that means."

"I mentioned this option earlier, and now I'm afraid we have no choice." His usually kind eyes are obsidian. "Max needs a complete psychiatric assessment—including his medication protocol."

Danielle stares at the floor, a prism of tears clouding her eyes. "You mean."

His voice floats up to her very softly, very slowly. "Maitland."

Danielle feels her stomach free-fall. There is that word. It is as final as the closing of a coffin.

During the trip from Des Moines to Plano, Iowa, she drives as Max sleeps. Despite the chaos of suitcases, cabs, traffic and nightmarish arguments, they somehow caught the flight from New York. She had tried every form of plea and coercion to get Max's agreement to go to Maitland. It was only after she broke down completely that Max relented—just barely. She didn't wait for him to change his mind. She stayed up all night, constantly peeking into his bedroom to make sure he was.alive. The next day they were on that plane.

Her anxiety lessens as she settles into the thrum of the road. She lights a cigarette and lowers her window, hoping that Max won't wake up. He hates it when she smokes. The landscape is a flat, weary brown. It is only after they reach Plano and turn off the highway that all around them explodes. Every broad leaf is a stroke of green, bursting with liquid sun. She smells the aftermath of swollen showers and imagines a flood of expiation that wipes the world clean, leaving one incorruptible—the black, secret earth. It is a sign of hope, she decides, a presentiment that all will be well.

As she drives on, she turns her face to the sun, relaxes in its warmth, and thinks of Max as a small boy. One afternoon in particular flashes in her mind. At her father's farm in Wisconsin, shortly before he died, Danielle rocked gently in the porch swing and watched as the afternoon sun burnished gold into the summer air and turned her bones to butter.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Mira; 1st edition (September 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0778329631
  • ISBN-13: 978-0778329633
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #358,843 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

A former international trial lawyer, van Heugten spent 15 years practicing all over the world, primarily in Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in Houston, her hometown. She's a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, where she earned her undergraduate and law degrees.

The Tulip Eaters is van Heugten's second novel. Her debut novel, Saving Max (MIRA Books, October 2010), was a USA Today bestseller, translated into six languages and received much critical acclaim. Inspired by her real-life experience as the mother of two autistic children, Saving Max follows a single mother whose teenage son has Asperger's syndrome and becomes the primary suspect in a gruesome murder case.

In her latest book, The Tulip Eaters (MIRA Books, November 2013), van Heugten follows Nora de Jong as she returns home from work to find her mother brutally murdered and infant daughter missing. The only clue is the body of a dead stranger, clutching a Luger in his hand. Launching a frantic search for her missing daughter, de Jong is forced to confront the roots of her family's secret past in World War II, leading her to Amsterdam, where her own haunting memories flood back.

When not thinking up new ways to kill off her characters, van Heugten enjoys long hikes with her dog, gardening and traveling. She is currently working on her next novel, Finding Marianne, the sequel to Saving Max. She lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, with her husband, a former prominent oil and gas trial lawyer.

For more information, please visit

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Sheri in Reho TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 16, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I started Saving Max, I found the story of a desperate mother trying to find help for her sometimes-violent autistic teenager intriguing. However, during the first third or so of the book, my enjoyment of the story was substantially impacted (negatively) by the writing; so much so at times that I wasn't sure I was going to continue reading. Now that I have finished the book (and I'm very glad I kept reading, by the way) and look back to the beginning, it feels like two or three different people wrote it--or perhaps one person over several different periods of time.

In the first third or so, the author seemed to be working overtime throwing "25 cent words" into the story. I have a pretty good vocabulary and not only were there words used that I don't hear/read very often, there were words I could not remember having read before (tenebrous, nubilous, kilim, expiation and malefic just in the first 20 pages or so, and that's leaving out all the psychiatric terms). Not to say that boosting the reader's vocabulary is a bad thing at all--it just felt forced, like the author was parading her grand vocabulary for ego's sake.

There was also too much melodramatic description for my taste--"The darkness is voluptuous velvet.", "Her whisper is a feather in the wind." and "The air between them is dry powder hungry for the flame." to provide just a few examples on a SINGLE page. Not to say that similes, metaphors and analogies have no place in writing--of course they do!--for me, they just feel overused at times and/or too grandiose for the story being told.

In contrast, most of the final half of the book is an exciting mystery in which the writing did NOT detract from my enjoyment of the story.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Susan K. Schoonover VINE VOICE on December 9, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As a special education teacher I am often attracted to books that deal with people with special needs and the legal system. SAVING MAX is the third such book published in 2010 I have read. Though the book is melodramatic and chockfull of ludicrous plot devices and pulp romance novel conventions it still manages to engage. I think the book is readable because the author does such a great job of creating the nightmare scenario in which the heroine Danielle finds herself. I had to keep reading to find out how everything would resolve ridiculous as Danielle's actions and those around her are portrayed. The writing in the book is quite uneven and for some reason the beginning of the book is stuffed with complex words as if the author wanted to show off her intelligence but by the end things have degenerated to the point that the journal entries of the murderer that should be horrific are so overwrought they are almost laughable. Still for a quick page-turner the prospective reader could do worse.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 1000 REVIEWER on September 28, 2010
Format: Paperback
Danielle Parkman is a single mother who has combined a successful career as an attorney with parenting her teenage son Max, who has Asperger's syndrome. As the story opens, Danielle's parenting skills are being tested by Max's violent outbursts and she is concerned for his emotional wellbeing because of his expression of suicidal thoughts and drug use. Danielle takes Max to a psychiatric hospital for assessment in the hope of finding treatment which will help to manage his volatile behaviour. The assessment leads to a recommendation is that Max requires in-patient treatment for more specialized psychiatric assistance and he is admitted to the Maitland Psychiatric Unit.

Thus begins a nightmare for Max and Danielle.

Max is found bloody and unconscious next to the bed of a murdered patient: a boy named Jonas. The circumstances mean that Max is the prime suspect, and Danielle herself becomes implicated in the crime. Danielle's fight to clear Max leads to an investigation involving a number of interesting characters and events as Danielle seeks to uncover the truth.

I enjoyed this novel although I found parts of it disturbing. On one level, this is suspenseful fiction. On another level, it raises a number of `What if?' questions about medical diagnosis and treatment. The characters, particularly Danielle and Max, are finely realised.

`To have a child who has friends, goes to school, has a future - these are the dreams of a race of people to whom she and this woman no longer belong.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Julia Flyte TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 5, 2010
Format: Paperback
Danielle is a successful lawyer and the single mother of a bright teenage boy called Max. Max has Asperger's Syndrome as well as some other behavioral issues. Danielle takes Max to a highly regarded psychiatric facility for assessment, where they meet another mother and son called Marianne and Jonas. The experts conclude that Max has severe issues and is uncontrollably violent, which Danielle disagrees with. However before she can remove Max from the facility, she discovers Jonas stabbed to death and Max cowering in the corner of the room, covered in blood and clutching the murder weapon. Danielle's first impulse is to protect Max by trying to cover up his part in the murder, which leads to them both being charged (she is charged as an accessory to murder). Danielle remains convinced that Max is innocent and she is prepared to do whatever it takes to get him off.

The book starts slowly but once the murder takes place, it tears along from that point. I felt that a few sections were over-written but generally it was easy to read and quite engrossing. I had two main problems with it, hence the 3 star rating. One was that we never really get to know Max at the beginning, so I didn't particularly care about him or have any reason to doubt the official line about what had happened. Therefore Danielle's behaviour felt totally irrational and unlikely, particularly given that she was a lawyer. I felt like the story lost believability.

It's a credit to Antoinette van Heughten's writing that I remained glued to this book despite those problems. It's very readable. Be aware that Max's autism is not a key element in the story and it's not the book to read if you want to find out more about Asperger's Syndrome.
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