Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book Review: KISSING IN AMERICA by Margo Rabb

A few years ago, I read Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak (my review: I was drawn into and touched by the novel’s quiet intensity and beautifully painful emotions. The story is set in Queens, New York—where I am originally from—and I deeply related to Rabb's vivid depiction of my hometown: the sounds, the scents, the 7 train. I also related to the novel's theme of loss and grief—which, unfortunately, are universal experiences that we all endure in one way or another. 

These themes (and others) are explored in Rabb’s latest novel, Kissing in America. Its protagonist, Eva, is a bright teenager who sometimes writes poetry and is suffering from the sudden death of her father. He died in a plane crash, but Eva doesn’t tell everyone that. “I say he died of a heart attack…so he never felt a thing...The passing, the peaceful transition between life and death. Rest in peace. That’s how I wanted it to be. ”

But Eva knows that her father didn’t die peacefully. His tragic end and his absence in her life have left her grieving and depressed—a state that Eva describes as “griefy.” To make matters worse, Eva’s mother doesn’t confront Eva’s feelings—or her own—and she tries to push away the sorrow by ignoring it. “She kind of pretends he never existed,” Eva says.

This has caused a distance between Eva and her mother, who buries herself in work while Eva finds comfort inside a box of her father’s belongings and between the pages of romance novels. “I’ve failed you as a mother, as a woman, and as a citizen of this world,” Eva’s mother says of the book addiction—but it is just another part of her daughter that she doesn’t understand and chooses not to examine. “To my mother,” Eva says, “my real problem was that I believed in love, in great love. I had this trickle of hope, always, that the future would be filled with romance.”

Eva thinks she has found authentic romance with Will—a magnetic, somewhat mysterious classmate who “managed to be weird and popular at the same time.” Their relationship blossoms, and Rabb expertly depicts the torture of adolescent affection and Eva’s confusion about literary vs. real-life love:  “In romance novels, nobody ever asks ‘Hey, what’s going on here exactly? Why did you kiss me? What kind of relationship did you have in mind?' Instead, there are three hundred pages of cholera, explosions…and misunderstandings keeping the couple apart. I can handle cholera, I thought. I can handle typhus, tornadoes…if it means getting to kiss him again.”

But Eva’s relationship with Will is thwarted when unfortunate circumstances send him from Queens to California. They keep in touch—mainly through the now old-fashioned art of letter-writing—but letters aren’t enough for Eva. She desperately wants to see Will again, so she devises a plan with her best friend, Annie. They apply—and are accepted—to a reality show in LA called "The Smartest Girl in America."

Despite Eva’s mother’s protests, Eva and Annie set off on a road trip to LA—where Eva plans to reunite with Will. And once outside of their home state for the first time, they see the country with the awe of true Queens natives: “There was so much sky. In New York you had to brace yourself before you went outside, muster the courage to face the crowds and subways and noise…[here] the sun shimmered on baseball diamonds, emerald lawns, and pretty, quaint houses.”

New experiences await Eva and Annie on their trip—including shotguns, cowboys, and spaghetti topped with chili (which is, in fact, a real thing in Ohio!). And they are hit with the reality of “reality” television when Eva notices “The set looked much fancier and glossier on TV than it had in real life.”

Eva also copes with unexpected developments that make her wonder “How do you walk through the world, how do you continue, when you know what a dark place it is? It’s like you realize you were hiding beneath a blanket, and now the blanket’s blown off and you see the universe for what it really is: a place where terrible things happen…How do you get up each day…when you know the truth?”

Through her grief, Eva finds ways to cope with this truth, to realize she already has the love she seeks, to appreciate those who matter most, and to accept that “my father was always my father.” She finds a deeper understanding of the person he was and discovers that “everything is connected”—that within families, painful experiences can be passed down in different forms.

Kissing in America is a poignant coming-of-age story that honestly confronts love and heartache in its many configurations. The book's cover depicts a fanciful road trip, but there is so much more to be found within its pages. Rabb’s novel achieves what Eva feels when she puts pen to paper: “That’s what writing did…it unraveled the tangled feelings and wove them into something new.”

Title: Kissing in America

 Author: Margo Rabb
Rating: 5/5 stars
Publisher: Harper Collins; 2015
Genre: Young Adult Fiction;
 highly recommended for both teens and adults.
 Author’s website: