Book Talk: *You Are My Only*, by Beth Kephart


You Are My Only
Beth Kephart
EgmontUSA (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1606842722 / 9781606842720)
Fiction (YA), 256 pages
Source: ARC from publisher at BEA 2011 (pub date October 25, 2011)
Reason for reading: favorite author

Opening lines: “My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they’ll-blow it down house. The roof is soft; it’s tumbled. There are bushes growing tall past the sills. A single sprouted tree leans in from high above the cracked slate path, torpedoing acorns to the ground.
“Splat and crack. Another acorn to the ground.
“‘Sophie?’
“‘Mother?’
“‘I’m off.’
“‘Right.’
“‘Be good.’
“Be good. My mother’s instructions. Her rules.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: Emmy Rane is married at nineteen, a mother by twenty. Trapped in a life with a husband she no longer loves, Baby is her only joy. Then one sunny day in September, Emmy takes a few fateful steps away from her baby and returns to find her missing. All that is left behind is a yellow sock.

Fourteen years later, Sophie, a homeschooled, reclusive teenage girl is forced to move frequently and abruptly from place to place, perpetually running from what her mother calls the “No Good.” One afternoon, Sophie breaks the rules, ventures out, and meets Joey and his two aunts. It is this loving family that gives Sophie the courage to look into her past. What she discovers changes her world forever. . . 

The riveting stories of Emmy and Sophie—alternating narratives of loss, imprisonment, and freedom regained—escalate with breathless suspense toward an unforgettable climax.

Comments: I’ve been intrigued by the plot of Beth Kephart’s newest novel, You Are My Only, ever since I first heard about it; the young-mother angle was what particularly caught my attention, as I was also married at nineteen and a mother by twenty. Thankfully, my story and Emmy Rane’s don’t have much more in common than that; for one thing, my baby didn’t mysteriously disappear when she was just a few months old. Twenty-seven years later, I still (usually) know where he is.

This isn’t just Emmy’s story, however; it’s also that of fourteen-year-old Sophie Marks, whose overly-sheltering mother Cheryl has moved the two of them from one place to another–always trying to stay ahead of what she calls “the No Good”–for most of Sophie’s life, home-schooling and keeping her away from the neighbors. But Cheryl has to go to work and leave Sophie on her own, and Sophie’s old enough to be getting restless, which leads her across the alley to meet Joey Rudd, his two aunts, and their big loud dog, Harvey.

Kephart follows Emmy and Sophie through alternating, parallel narratives. Emmy’s efforts to find her missing Baby cause her physical injury and sufficient mental and emotional anguish to be confined to a state hospital. Sophie’s developing relationship with Joey’s family causes her to see herself differently and to chafe against her own confinement, facing questions she hasn’t really thought about before and finding answers that she she never imagined.

There’s suspense in this novel, but it doesn’t come from figuring out how Emmy’s and Sophie’s stories are connected; any reader who doesn’t surmise that connection fairly quickly isn’t paying attention, and Beth Kephart’s novels both require and reward attention. While they’re written primarily for a young-adult audience, they’re ideal “crossover” books for the adult who doesn’t usually read YA; unlike a lot of current YA fiction, they’re firmly rooted in the real world and feature emotionally complex characters. Kephart’s teens have always been strikingly real, but in Emmy, she’s created an adult protagonist who is just as fully realized.

You Are My Only explores attachment from a number of perspectives; the fierce protectiveness of mother love is a primary theme (one that I think applies to Cheryl as well as to Emmy), with the unconventional family across the alley–two elderly lesbian aunts and the teenage nephew they are raising–considered in counterpoint. These themes largely emerge between the lines, which is a hallmark of this author’s storytelling style. Kephart’s writing is poetic and evocative, and as I said, it rewards attention paid to it…and to the things she doesn’t actually say. One of her great strengths is that she can tell a powerful story without hammering all the points home. And this is a powerful, memorable story, ambitious in structure and emotionally affecting.

Beth Kephart has become a friend over the last couple of years, but I’ve made every effort to set that aside during my reading of You Are My Only and consider it objectively. Speaking objectively, I believe this is her best work yet and would encourage anyone who hasn’t yet discovered her work to start right here. Speaking personally, I’m happy that I loved reading this, and honored to call its author a friend.

Rating: 4.25/5
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