Am I going out on a limb to suggest that teens read what readers’ advisory librarians refer to as “women’s fiction”? I don’t think so. Whether it’s Danielle Steele, Joshilyn Jackson, Alice Hoffman, or a newcomer like Vanessa Diffenbaugh and her wonderful debut, The Language of Flowers, teen readers are curious about the lives of adults, especially adults in their 20s. This genre features issues of family, friendship and relationships, which are all-important to most teens. I do think their patience with certain adult concerns is limited, and the writing needs to be immediately engaging. The main characters must draw them in, and a tragic element doesn’t hurt. The three books reviewed below all include tragedy. Their characters live through early losses and struggles — and they all come out on the other side.
Forever, Interrupted was inspired by the author’s worst fear, the death of a loved one, and by her love of “books that make you bawl your eyes out.” Her novel is full of first love, sudden tragedy, dramatic personal conflict, and terrible grief. See the full interview with debut author Taylor Jenkins Reid here.
Kristin Hannah has been writing wonderful novels for years — we reviewed Night Road in 2011. I called it “perfect for girls who enjoy a sad story, especially one involving a great love.” Fly Away also involves family and loss, this time the loss of a mother to cancer.
Safe to say that The Help and The Secret Life of Bees are perennial teen favorites in my library. Whistling Past the Graveyard is a good readalike recommendation for those books. A feisty, lovable 9-year-old protagonist comes of age in the 1960s South, helped by a kind black woman with her own troubles.
REID, Taylor Jenkins. Forever, Interrupted. 352p. Washington Square: S. & S. 2013. pap. $15. ISBN 978-1-4767-1282-6. LC 2012035073.
Adult/High School–When your husband dies after nine days of marriage, are you really a widow? Are you entitled to feel the deep pain of loss and seek comfort when your entire relationship was only six weeks long and your families don’t even know about it? This is the agonizing situation Elsie Porter Ross finds herself in after her husband, Ben, is killed in a bicycle accident. She meets her mother-in-law, Susan, for the first time at the hospital where they both want to claim Ben’s body and belongings. Susan is also a widow, and the loss of her only child coupled with meeting a woman she’s never heard of who claims to be Ben’s wife is too much for her to bear. Working back and forth between their first meeting and the present day, the story of Ben and Elsie’s relationship unfolds, showing the intensity of their romance and slowly revealing the reasons behind Elsie’s insecurity about the validity of her feelings. Unable to get any support from her emotionally distant parents, she leans heavily on her best friend, Ana, as she faces the challenging task of getting Susan to recognize and accept her. Teen fans of Deb Caletti’s and Sarah Dessen’s stories of complicated love will enjoy this exploration of a relationship likened to a supernova–burning brilliantly, then quickly fading away.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
Young Adult/High School–Sometimes, no matter how good the intentions, the efforts of family and friends to care for each other fail miserably, causing them to scatter in different directions searching for comfort. Despite that, the connection remains, allowing them eventually to find their way back. Tully and Kate have been like sisters since middle school. Kate’s parents stepped in to help raise Tully, taking over from Cloud, Tully’s drug addicted mother. Now a brilliantly successful television host, Tully steps away from her career to help care for Kate when she falls ill from cancer. Kate’s death leaves everyone, especially her 16-year-old daughter Marah, devastated. Tully, Cloud, and Marah are fully developed characters and through chapters told in their voices, the paths they follow after Kate’s death become painfully inevitable. The male characters, Kate’s husband and her 11-year-old twin boys, are less well developed but do add dimension to this story of shared grief. Hannah gives full voice to the pain and difficulty of suffering loss and the very hard, but ultimately redemptive work of creating a new normal, the most important step in helping Kate’s loved ones find their way back to each other. Teens will appreciate the honesty of this story; painful situations can lead to choices that, while appearing to bring quick relief, only prolong the pain. Themes of facing family difficulties, managing evolving friendships, and finding one’s way in the world will also resonate with teens.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
Adult/High School–It’s 1963 and spitfire white girl Starla Claudell is nine years old, living with her grandmother in Mississippi. Her father, with whom she exchanges letters and sees on holidays, works on an oil rig. After Starla is grounded for punching a bully in the nose due to her fierce sense of justice, she runs away to find her mother, who she hasn’t heard from since she was three. She is sure her mother is a famous singer living in Nashville. On the road, thirsty and basically done in, Starla meets Eula, a black woman who agrees to give her a ride. Of course it’s a lot more complicated than that: Eula has a white baby she found on a church doorstep and an abusive husband. In the tradition of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (Penguin, 2009) and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (Viking, 2002), these two characters connect to accomplish things neither could do on her own. The many teens who love those books will like this one as well. Starla’s voice is, for the most part, terrifically rendered with only one or two few false notes (calling the bully a “brownnoser” seems too sophisticated) that will be easily overlooked. While Starla does “come of age” and learn about the world, ultimately it’s her father who saves the day. The writing swiftly carries readers through to the feel-good conclusion.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA