Monday, July 6, 2009

Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert

Ballads. Truly genuine, gut retching ballads of punk that convey emotions of love and loss. Songs that tell a story through music and lyrics. These are the kind that Kara McNaughton likes. So when she comes across a notebook deemed "Stories of Suburbia" that holds newspaper clippings of strange and sometimes tragic events from suburbs across the country as well as personal stories of the moments her friends' lives changed, she gives them the ever-appropriate name of "ballads" and later becomes the keeper of the book. The one rule: don't read someone else's ballad until you've written your own. The problem is, Kara never could figure out what her song was about before she left at the end of her junior year to escape the problems she'd been facing in Oak Park, Chicago.

It all starts with an epilogue that serves as the prologue, set four years later when Kara returns for the first time to face the music and see her best friend Stacey, who started it all unknowingly at the beginning of her freshman year of high school. Kara finally tells the tale of her first three years of high school, and what happened with her and her friends. She talks about Stacey, who tries to win the affection of many guys, hoping to find one who will take care of her the way her parents never did; Maya, an eccentric redhead who has a theory about everything, including what type of cigarettes people smoke, and is very outgoing but who has problems talking about her mother's suicide; Cass, Maya's cousin, who drops acid in the hopes that it will help her deal with her brother's abandonment and her mother's depression; Adrian, who started the notebook and has issues with being adopted and how his birth parents react to him; Christian, who seems like a generally nice guy but is still torn up about his mother's death and his father sleeping around; and Liam, Kara's little brother, who idolized Johnny Cash until he was made fun of for it, and used to idolize his big sister until she let him down too many times. And there's even Quentin, whose ballad we never read, but who plays a crucial role in Kara's relationships.

Kara's story wouldn't be the same without all these people around her. Stacey, who moves to a different school right before their freshman year starts Kara's downward spiral. Kara feels abandoned and begins high school as a loner, spending her time on the couch with Liam, watching music videos and going to the occasional concert in between cutting herself when things get too hard to bear. Maya, who takes Kara out of this slump and introduces her to Scoville Park and the "misfit" kids that hang there. From that moment on, Kara spends the summer and school year going to parties, drinking, taking hits, and eventually winding up in the park, puking from a heroin overdose and almost dying right there. She survives and is able to realize this is the time for leaving Oak Park and all her problems behind in order to get clean.

Reading this spectacular second novel from Stephanie Kuehnert, I remembered what it's like for a novel to capture you tightly and to not let go. I fell, instantly, back into the poetic and sharp writing that I loved so much the first go around with I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. The language is not wasted. Not a single word is superfluous and every sentence has its role. Stephanie is a wordsmith if I ever met one.

Besides the writing and language, there were many other things I enjoyed about Ballads. The characters--harsh, honest, eccentric--resonated and their ballads were poignant. Even the littler characters were fully developed and oustandingly and brilliantly written. Cass was the strongest of them all. She deals not only with her problems, but with those of her cousin Maya, her mother, her friends, and Quentin, who she becomes really close to throughout the novel. Wes, her brother, tells her before he leaves to take care of everyone for him because she is a guardian angel. So she tries. Even through her failures, she keeps going. Even when she's at her most vulnerable and she's collapsed in front of a friend strung out on heroin, she fights through it. Her character is powerful and provides a constant throughout.

I also enjoyed Stephanie's use of editing and restraint. She didn't "clean up" the novel and remove the profanities or the truths of the drugs, but she didn't put more than was necessary. There are so many tales of teendom and experiments with drugs that overdo it, the writers believing that, to make the story real, they have to include every profanity they can come up with and make every other scene one of teens shooting up or downing a jack and coke. The difference here is that Stephanie knows what makes a story real. It's in her. You can tell that when you read Ballads. She didn't have to live Kara's life to write it honestly.

Ballads of Suburbia is angsty, severe, mesmerizing, and incisive. I stayed up hours into the night, becoming myself a nocturnal creature, because I couldn't bear to put it down. I wanted to at so many moments, but I couldn't. That's what makes this novel so spectacularly hypnotizing and captivating--there are ballads that you just don't want to read because they're too real and you feel like it's your friend you're reading about, but you just can't stop because they are so real and honest. I admit to shedding tears multiple times, feeling as if I was a part of it all, just as I admit to smiling when things were going well.

It's hard to part ways with this novel, but I'm sure I'll come back to it later. I almost did already. I turned the last page and thought to myself "I want to read this again. Right now." I could have just then. Ballads of Suburbia deserves the full 5 out of 5, though I didn't expect any less from Stephanie Kuehnert.


p.s. You should pre-order this book if you're interested. Or go out an buy it asap. It's set to be released July 21. You can get it at your local bookstore (order it now or wait until it's released), or pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or Borders. Also, to get a taste, you can read the first chapter here!

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