I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert was a novel I had very high hopes for. When the first novel you read by an author easily makes the top 5 books read this year, you expect a lot.
I asked Stephanie to take part in Just Contemporary month, and because she is awesome, she said yes. I knew that I wanted to read Joey Ramone to review it around the same time I posted her interview, so I did. And, in case you are wondering whether or not it lived up to my expectations, here is (and I quote) what my GR initial review was once I finished the book:
DUDE. Stephanie — THOU ART GENIUS and I am now basking in your glow.I will admit that Ballads is my favorite of the two. But that doesn't really mean that Joey Ramone is anything less. It's just very different and the story here is intense in a completely different way.
Our main character, Emily, feels music intensely, with every part of her body. It's just her and her dad, because her mother walked out on them when Emily was 4 months old and has had no contact with any of them since then. Her father told Emily that her mom left to follow the music and that's what Emily has grown up believing. And so when the music begins to call to her as well, she embraces it, body and soul and the music gives life. She starts a band with her absolute best friend (the daughter of her mother's best friend, actually) and her friend Regan's crush, Tom. And although the road is rocky getting there, the three of them make amazing music together that the people love.
This book read a little bit like a love letter from Stephanie to Punk Music. And I loved it. I will be the first to admit that I'm not a music junky. I love music, but I don't actively seek out new songs or bands and I often go days without listening to any. (I don't even own an ipod...) . But reading this book made me desperately wish that I felt the music the way Emily does and the way that I suspect Stephanie does as well. The descriptions of the concerts and the sounds and the heightened emotions just sunk into my blood and made me wish that I had been old enough to truly appreciate the Punk revolution in the 90s. (I was in elementary school then. A bit young to be moshing).
Music was a huge part of the story, and it could have been a story on it's own, but the true complexity of the story, what makes it more than another story about kids loving music is the story of Emily and her mother, Louisa. As the book progresses, we learn more about what made Louisa leave and how it eats at her, little by little every day that she is gone. She has not led an easy life since leaving and every decision makes her feel worse and worse and less and less worthy to ever rejoin her family. My heart hurt a little for Louisa, even though I found myself to be incredibly angry at her. I have a really hard time with people who walk out on their family and I tend to be a very harsh judge. So I was quite surprised to find myself feeling compassion for Louisa instead of just disdain. (Don't worry, that was there too, but my feelings were far more complex than that). She convinced herself that she was doing what was ultimately best for her daughter and she never let them see her looking back.
Emily grew up not knowing much about her mom. It's really hard for her dad to talk about it (he still wears his wedding ring) and Emily has convinced herself that she doesn't need a mother and that she doesn't even miss her or care that she's gone. But that pain lingers. When a parent leaves you, whether you ever knew them or not, it changes you and it's pretty much always going to be a part of you. That pain and anger and confusion slips into her music and fuels a large part of her passion. And it broke my heart completely. I cry a lot in books where people die, but I don't often usually cry at other places. But this book, this one made me choke up more than a few times as Emily was struggling internally with her emotions and facing demons she wished didn't even exist.
As much as I loved this book overall, I do have to admit, I was a little (or okay, a lot) concerned by the very casual and completely destructive drug and alcohol abuse in just about every character. Almost all of the main characters have some serious substance abuse problems and aside from two scenes, it's never really portrayed as a problem. It's just what you do in Rock & Roll. Which I understand. It was a huge part of the music scene, especially that punk/grunge era. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a problem. And it was, IMO, far too easy for the characters who did realize they had a problem to just 'fix' it. Addictions aren't really that easy to kick. That's why they are addictions.
But even that wasn't enough to dampen how much I liked this book. Part of that is because I recognize that as a personal choice/preference. But either way, this is a powerful story about growing into yourself, accepting who you are, and loving music. This is another of those books that keeps going for me. I can't stop thinking about what choices each character might make next, where they might go, what they might say or do. And while the book did give you a sense of closure, the story of these characters is by no means over. There is a long way yet for them to go and I, for one, hope that getting there is smoother than their previous journey.
This book has cemented something that I had strongly suspected after reading Ballads. I will read anything, anything that Stephanie will write. She has this way with words that just seeps into your mind and soul, filling your thoughts and popping up at odd moments saying Don't forget about me. As I mentioned before, Stephanie, Thou Art Genius.