Book Talk: *Small Damages*, by Beth Kephart

Opening lines: “The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. I roll the smeary window down, stick out my arm. I run one finger against the crumble-down of walls. Touch them for you: Hello, Seville.”

Because I consider Beth Kephart a friend (and it goes both ways, I’m happy to say), I don’t feel I can present my thoughts on her new young-adult novel, Small Damages, in my usual book-review format. So I’m doing it backwards–you’ll find the book data and publisher’s information at the end of this post instead of in the lead-off positions, and my impressions up in front.

The catalog copy for Small Damages  describes it as “Juno meets Under the Tuscan Sun,” and I suppose that’s an effective shorthand. The sun (and the food) here is that of Spain rather than northern Italy, and Kenzie Spitzer is less in control of her situation than Juno MacGuff (and also less blessed with supportive parents)–but if you need a point of reference, it’ll do.

The whole idea of sending a pregnant teenager away until she has given birth–and given away her baby to adoptive parents, so that she can then return home from her mysterious trip and pick up her life where she left off–is an oddly old-fashioned one, and while the novel is clearly contemporary, its time frame isn’t quite of-the-monent. It’s also an interesting angle on the question of “choice” debate, in which adoption seems to be the least-discussed choice much of the time–but unlike Juno, Kenzie doesn’t feel much ownership of this particular choice. Feeling resentful and out of control, her stay in Spain seems like exile, and her inadequate knowledge of the language is only one source of her discomfort as she struggles to come to terms with the turns her life has taken.

Beth Kephart, on the other hand, seems to operate very comfortably within this foreign setting, and Small Damages  is among her best work. Having said that, even less-stellar Beth Kephart is still pretty darn good, but I think this is her richest, most resonant novel since The Heart is Not a Size (also set in a Spanish-speaking country). It’s not hard to get caught up in the beauty of Beth’s writing–well-constructed, evocative description is among her particular strengths–and it serves an especially compelling story here. Her Kenzie isn’t always easy to like–she’s angry, confused, and comes off a bit spoiled at times–but her emotional growth over the course of the novel is convincing. Her voice is distinctive–less articulate than some of the author’s prior teenage protagonists (or Juno MacGuff, for that matter), maybe, but that suits both her general confusion and the foreign-ness of her setting. Influential cross-generational relationships are becoming another hallmark of Beth’s fiction; her teens struggle with their parents (one of whom may be absent or dead), but there are grandparent surrogates who play important roles, like the elderly lesbian neighbors in You Are My Only and Kenzie’s cooking teacher/guardian Estela here. Kenzie and Estela’s relationship develops believably from mutual irritation to real affection, and significantly affects Kenzie’s decisions later in the novel.

Looking back over previous posts about Beth Kephart’s books, I’ve called several of her books “the best one yet”–and I’m saying it again, but something feels different about Small Damages. I think it brings the author’s gifts as writer and storyteller (which are not always synonymous or co-occurring things) together more effectively than any of her earlier fiction has, and I feel that it will stay with me longer. If you haven’t gotten around to reading Beth Kephart yet, start here–Small Damages is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s in bookstores and libraries today.

Book description, from the publisher’s website:It’s senior year, and while Kenzie should be looking forward to prom and starting college in the fall, she discovers she’s pregnant. Her determination to keep her baby is something her boyfriend and mother do not understand. So she is sent to Spain, where she will live out her pregnancy, and her baby will be adopted by a Spanish couple. No one will ever know.

Alone and resentful in a foreign country, Kenzie is at first sullen and difficult. But as she gets to know Estela, the stubborn old cook, and Esteban, the mysterious young man who cares for the horses, she begins to open her eyes, and her heart, to the beauty that is all around her, and inside her. Kenzie realizes she has some serious choices to make–choices about life, love, and home.

Small Damages
Beth Kephart (Twitter)
Philomel (July 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0399257489 / 9780399257483)
Fiction (YA), 304 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, via the author w/personal inscription
Reason for reading: Personal

Small Damages was reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 15 edition)

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