Merry Wanderer of the Night + YA

Review: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert

Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert came in the mail for me one day, completely unexpected. It was signed and shipped from Stephanie herself and I have no idea why. I searched through my emails, couldn't find any mention of the book, but it had been on my watch/tbr pile for a while, and it was signed, so I was happy and added it to the pile, waiting to be read. It waited for a couple of months before I finally picked it up.

I wish I had read it immediately.

This is one of those books that forces a person to redefine and reevaluate the way they view their world. At least, that's what it did to me. I've been waiting a while now to write this review because there is so much to be said about this book, and I don't feel at all qualified to say it.

It's a story about Kara, a teenage girl who doesn't really seem to fit in anywhere, doesn't make friends easily and doesn't deal with internal pain very well. When her best (and only friend) moves away, she has no one left but her younger brother Liam who doesn't really trust her, because they used to be close, and then she ditched him for the best friend. But they start to get closer, and then Kara meets Maya. She's confident, vibrant and flamboyant, pretty much everything Kara is not. They bond quickly and Maya takes Kara with her to Scoville Park, where she is introduced to an entirely new world and where she feels, for the first time in forever, that she has friends, that she fits in, and here, she can be cool.

But the crowd that hangs out at Scoville Park is not exactly the crowd that mommies and daddies want their kiddies hanging out with. They drink, smoke, do drugs-some 'basic' high school fair (pot) and some much, much harder (heroin and acid) and get into all kinds of trouble. But Kara, who has been secretly cutting for years to feel in control of her life finally feels like she's found a place to belong.

This leads me to the only thing about this book that I can find fault with. Every single teenage character in this book (and I do mean every single one) that gets more than two sentences of face time spends the entire novel drunk/stoned/high/strung out/tripping/hungover or some combination of them all. I know that there are some teenagers who did go through high school like that. And, it makes sense that if you are living like that, the people you hang out with are likely to be living like that too. I get it. Really, I do. But it is something so completely foreign to me, something that is as completely and totally different from my own high school (and life) experiences as you can possibly get, that I had a hard time with that. It just felt a little over the top, a little extreme.

But then again, this is coming from the girl who has never even tasted alcohol, has never picked up a cigarette, never even been tempted to try drugs. None of these are things that appeal to me. Partly because I'm supremely fond of my brain, and very aware that any and all drug use diminishes brain capacity, and also because I don't like the idea of giving up that much control to a substance. I freely admit, I need more control over my life than that.

So, although I struggled with the level of constant drug abuse, it is also such an integral part of the novel, and given what these characters experienced is so completely different from what I, or anyone I know, went through at that age, it really forced me to reexamine the way I view the world and the people in it. These characters are filled with so much pain. I wasn't always a happy person in high school, in fact the emotion I was most familiar with for most of my growing up years is anger, but I've never met a cast of characters with so much emotional turmoil before and the pain practically bleeds from the pages. But, surprisingly, somehow, there is a lot of love included in that pain. This group of friends — flawed, suffering, somewhat stupid — is there for each other, and you know that at their core, they would go through Hell to protect each other. Which is why it's all the more heartbreaking when things start to break them apart, when they start to splinter.

I read this book through a perpetual ache in my chest, wanting them to find help, wanting them to understand that there is hope in the world, a life better than drinking and drugs can offer you. Every time Kara cut herself because she couldn't handles the pressure, my heart bled along with her arms. I wanted them to want something better for themselves, to understand that each of them deserved better than what they were giving themselves.

My absolute favorite part of this book was the way Stephanie told the story. It begins with the epilogue. Kara has been gone for four years now, having left the area after a night in Scoville with her 'boyfriend' Aidan leaves her almost dead in the park from a heroin overdose. She decides it is finally time to tell her story, and so begins her Ballad. The story is told mostly by Kara, but her narrative is broken up by the Ballads, or stories of the other characters. They take a few pages to express their hurts, their pain, their suffering. They write about the life experiences that made them who they are, that brought them to their present state. And although the story on its own, Kara's story is powerful in and of itself, I believe that the heart of the story would be missing without these added narratives. There is something about hearing about these disappointments straight from the characters who experiences them that gives the story a raw honesty that really reached into me. They each titled their own story, and these short titles really capture the tone of the story, and the characters themselves. And, as if that weren't enough, Stephanie has includes a single lyric with each ballad, each new section, a lyric that captures and hints at the tone each new section, each ballad will take us through. And the lyrics are perfect, almost as if the songs themselves were written for each of these characters.

I can't express enough how much this book moved me. These characters are so incredibly real to me, so rich and raw, their stories so moving, that I don't know how you can read this book and not be touched. I don't know how you can spend time with these people and not be left with an ache in your chest because you know there are people like them in real life, suffering, waiting, heading toward death or a life full of nothing. I ache for them. Still. It's been over a month since I read this book and I still find my heart aching every time I think about this book, every time I glance at my bookshelf and see the spine. This is an important book, and it doesn't get nearly the attention and love that it deserves. People, this book needs to be read. So what are you waiting for? Go do it.

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Review: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert + YA