And Then Things Fall Apart, by Arlaina Tibensky
Simon & Schuster, 2011(currently available)
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Face Value: This, you guys, is how to do an excellent YA cover. No model-esque girl on the cover, no girl at all in fact. I love the typewriter. I love that it’s actually an incredibly important plot point and it’s on the cover in a way that’s totally aesthetically pleasing. The typeface heart is a little cutesy but I love that too. I was actually a little bit disappointed that I finished this book all at once while sitting on my couch because I wanted to take this cover out in public to be admired.
Does it Break the Slate? OMG YES. Keek is a Slatebreaker from the outset and her emotional journey throughout the course of the book only solidifies her status. This book gets major points for everything from awesome friendships, terrific multigenerational relationships, a huge portion of the plot dedicated to Sylvia Plath and a really honest depiction of a teenager deciding whether or not to lose her virginity. Keek handles everything her life throws at her with as much style as she can muster, considering she has chicken pox at the age of 15.
Who would we give it to? Well I already ordered a copy online and had it shipped to my sister in Boston because she is going to really like it. But in addition to that I’d recommend this book for aspiring writers, poets and artists, and for any teenage girl who’s having sex, thinking about having sex or thinking about thinking about having sex. And anybody who has to figure out that their parents are in fact totally flawed people who sometimes make terrible choices. Also Chicagoans, because who doesn’t like reading a book set in a city you know and love?
Review: Keek (short for Karina) is having a truly terrible summer. She’s dealing with her dad’s infidelity, her parents impending divorce, her mom being halfway across the country, the biggest fight ever with her boyfriend and crushing betrayal from one of her best friends. Plus she has chicken pox. At fifteen. Stuck without internet while recovering at her grandmother’s house, Keek types out her story on an old typewriter and uses readings of Sylvia Plath’s poems and The Bell Jar to cope.
The first thing that really stands out about this book is Keek’s voice. Keek’s point of view (though seen through a fever haze in the first part of the book) is is sharp and clever and sincere. She’s smart enough to analyze her circumstances but not written in that overly precocious way that narrators sometimes are, where they seem to understand the world around them better than anybody else does. That’s definitely not the case because Keek is (to use her words) sofa king confused about why her life has suddenly imploded around her. But her wry, straightforward observations are spot on and insightful. Plus hilarious. Did I mention this book is actually really funny?
A few representative quotes:
“I know for sure what sexy is – or what shampoo commercials, men’s razor blade ads, Victoria’s freaking Secret and Maxim magazine want me to think is sexy. Yes, I know it so well, I could pull together a Power Point presentation about it for virgins everywhere. But what do I myself find sexy? What do I feel sexy doing, regardless of what I’m supposed to think is sexy? Dear reader, I am still figuring it the hell out”
“I read The Bell Jar and feel less alone. I feel smart. I feel like I have total permission to be as much of a smart-ass as Esther is because being a smart-ass is always preferable to being a dumb-ass”
“Once, Nic texted me to invite me to the grand opening of some vintage boutique on the North Side, and I texted her this: “K” I was late meeting Matt and was kind of in a hurry, which is what texting is for anyway. Because I didn’t text “OK! XXOO!!” she thought I didn’t really want to be there, when the truth was, I couldn’t wait to join her. So believe me, I have found out the hard way that emoticons and over-the-top cheerfulness in texts are socially necessary or people will think you’re pissed off at them”
“So when my mother started to talk about what a beautiful baby I was, I disappeared. I haven’t been a baby for a hundred years. Babies can’t talk. Can’t text. Can’t write anagrams in their sleep. Babies can’t see you for the sham you are and that’s why she always – and I mean always – brings up the beautiful baby song and dance when she knows she is screwing up royally.”
Don’t you just want to know this character? And give her a hug and go out for coffee and talk about the things in your life that feel so terrible you can’t help but laugh at them? I did. Very much.
A huge part of this story is Keek’s coming to terms with her parents’ betrayal, which she does through a mix of raw pain and bleak humor. Is there a more quintessential part of growing up than having to realize that your parents are not just human but totally flawed individuals? Keek has to hit that realization hard, because her parents spend a lot of this book doing some really stupid and selfish things. And she’s furious with them. I appreciated the way Tibensky didn’t let these characters off the hook too easily. Keek is furious and hurt and betrayed and stays furious throughout the book. But she also manages to find some empathy, and figure out that at some point, she might have to figure out a way to, if not forgive them, move forward with them in a new version of her life.
Keek also has some major stuff to deal with when it comes to her boyfriend. Luckily for the reader, the relationship between Keek and Matt is one of the most honest depictions of a high school relationship that I have ever read. The way Keek describes the things she loves about Matt are totally wonderful: he’s caring and smart, he loves his family and cooks dinner for them once a week. He “tries really hard to put the ‘friend’ in boyfriend” (I love that. More girls in books and in life should value that). But Matt’s also this really typical high school guy, who isn’t perfect and doesn’t quite know what to do with a girlfriend. For example:
“When it’s just us talking, especially on the phone and there are no bodies to distract him, he can’t quite keep up his end of the conversation. He knows enough at the end to say “I love you,” but after “Hi, Keekie” and before the love declaration there are a lot of ums, ohs, and I dunnos.” It’s not that I think he’s dumb. I don’t. He’s not. Matt starts AP History in the fall. It’s just that right now his body is doing all the thinking. I like him. I like his body. So there’s not really much of a problem. And sometimes he really does get me, like he is absorbing more of me than he lets on and when I need it, he lets me know. And it makes up for all the other stuff that doesn’t fit so great, and I think about doing it with him all over again.”
Keek is a virgin but she’s thinking about sex all the time. Which is, fantastically and excitingly, depicted as NORMAL. So even though there are all these other things going on in her relationship with Matt, it’s super physical. And she wants to have sex, but she’s not sure if she wants to write now. She tells us,
“I want to be both a virgin and a nonvirgin at the same time. Which is impossible. Just because I don’t want to ‘lose’ my ‘virginity’ doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind misplacing it for awhile. It’s exhausting, this always thinking about it and wondering about it so it becomes this great fulcrum of my existence. But much to my chagrin, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
I so appreciated the way Tibensky wrote Keek’s thought process about sex, the way that she wants to do it and doesn’t at the same time and isn’t sure what the right answer is. Both options are given equal validity and the number of pages in this book that I flagged to quote later for being awesomely sex positive numbered way more than would be interesting to actually include in a review. Especially a review like this one where I had to restrain myself from just quoting the whole freaking book at you.
Obviously, I can’t talk about the feminism in this book without talking about Sylvia Plath. Plath’s writing, both The Bell Jar and her poetry, have a profound impact on Keek and the way she is defining and understanding herself and her circumstances. This passage, on page 3, pretty much sums up Keek’s relationship with the book and why it’s relevant to her life and the story about to unfold. I love it:
“The Bell Jar is about a young writer named Esther Greenwood and how she goes a little crazy and then gets better. But the book is really all about how life is unfair. And right now, whose life is more unfair than mine? It’s also about losing your virginity and babies being alive and beautiful or dead and grotesque and either way ruining your life. But mostly it is about how hard it is to be yourself in a world that wants you to be someone who is easier to deal with. And it’s about writing. Which I also love. And trying to kill yourself, which I’m not so into, even though being alive is sofa king hard for me lately.” (emphasis mine)
Don’t you love that too? Because it is hard, really hard to be yourself when other people would rather not deal with your complexities. That’s a statement feminists have been shouting from the rooftops for centuries. It’s what Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath were trying to negotiate. And it’s incredibly relevant to most of the teenage girls I’ve ever met or read about or been because it’s really hard to work through when you’re in high school and you’re not only trying to be yourself but trying to figure out what exactly that means.
Like Keek, I loved Sylvia Plath in high school, but I get that she wasn’t for everyone. Even so, I think And Then Things Fall Apart is such a tremendously good introduction to Plath’s life and the larger themes of her writing. So many people only know or think about the fact that Sylvia Plath committed suicide. But while that’s relevant, it’s not the only thing she was about. And even if you read this book and never read a word that Sylvia Plath wrote outside of it, you would still have a richer understanding of who she was, what she was saying and why she was important. Tibensky has captured that remarkably hard thing to do, where you honor another writer through a totally original story.
Reviewed from library copy.