Karina — who goes by the nickname Keek — might be having the worst summer of her entire life. She and her best friend are having a fight because her best friend wronged her. She and her boyfriend are also on the outs because of her virginity (yes, her virginity). Her parents are in the midst of a divorce because her father cheated on her mother with one of his employees, who is hardly older than she is and as a way to “clear her mind,” her mother abandons her to spend time across the country with her new-born cousin who may be dying.
It sounds like a recipe for a standard teen drama, but add to this that Keek is also sick with the chicken pox and is living in her grandmother’s technology-free zone with her favorite book (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) and her father hiding out in the basement, and you have a book that really stands out — it’s funny, insightful, passionate, and one of the most relatable books I’ve read in a long time.
Although the premise makes the book sound like it’s going to be a serious novel, the book is actually quite funny. Keek’s got a strange but powerful sense of humor, which includes avoiding swearing, in favor of using the term “sofa king.” But more than that, it’s obvious that her being sick with chicken pox, which affects the immune system of teens and adults much differently than it does in younger kids, has given her some perspective on the issues in her life. That, in conjunction with being alone with no way to communicate with her friends, has given her so much space to think.
There is very little dialog in this book. It’s all told from Keek’s point of view, and it’s told through diary form. When Keek moved into her grandmother’s tech-free zone, her grandmother gifts her a type writer (hence the cover), and it’s what keeps Keek occupied during her two weeks of the pox. But as much as it’s a diary she’s keeping, Keek is also aware that it’s not private. She’s sharing this story much like an author writes a book — for an audience of outside readers to consider, appreciate, and take from it what they need. Her grandmother’s been paging through it (Keek figures this one out through a few conversations she does have with her grandmother) and as much as it bothers her to know her grandmother is reading about the fight between her and her boyfriend over her virginity, she’s also a bit flattered someone wants to read about her life.
See, the key part of this story is that it is a love story to writing and to literature. Keek is passionately in love with Sylvia Plath’s classic The Bell Jar. Like any teen book worm, she rereads it, over and over again, and she commits to memory many of the passages and moments in the story that she relates to. She often asks herself what Esther Greenwood would do in a situation and, at times, she considers what Plath herself would do, given that The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical. For me, this theme of the story was key to what made this book so relatable and such an enjoyable read; I got Keek completely. She wasn’t a loner by any means, but she really found passion in the written word and she wanted to grasp it and live it in any way she could. She didn’t hide behind books, but rather, she let them become a part of who she is and let them help guide her in figuring out how to solve the problems in her life.
I’ve read books before where the character becomes so enamored with another fictional character that they allow that literary figure become their role model and their moral compass. But in Tibensky’s story, Keek is completely her own person. She’s extremely different from Esther Greenwood, and yet she’s able to relate to that character and consider the actions that character would take in her situation and adjust accordingly. Whereas Esther traps herself in a bell jar, Keek wants to break free from hers, and she takes the steps possible to make that happen. I thought this device was employed well, and I thought that the use of The Bell Jar as an obsession for a 15-year-old girl couldn’t be more spot on. At 15, it was one of those books for me, so I understood Keek’s passion and devotion. Those feels still resonate for me when I read the right book, and I think any reader will get this completely.
Voice is easily the strongest element in this story, and it has to be, since the story is focused entirely on Keek’s internal thoughts and observations of life around her. Besides being funny, she’s a real, honest 15-year-old. She fixates on things that aren’t important, and as readers, we know she needs to do that to solve the broader issues and gain perspective on them. For instance, one night near the end of her sickness when she’s finally able to get out of her room and wander her grandmother’s house, she heads to the basement where her father’s living, and she fixates on the couch from her old house. It brings up a million memories and it triggers a host of emotions within her. But it’s that couch that causes her to delve a little deeper into her father’s room and discover that everything she thought about him and his actions that caused the decline of his marriage may have had a deeper reasoning behind them. Perhaps her mother wasn’t as innocent as she thought. I loved this way of giving us insight into the issues of Keek’s life because it felt authentic.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a little bit of a challenge with how smart the book was. I don’t mean how smart Keek was, nor how smart the way she unraveled the underlying issues around her were. The book itself was a little too smart in its use of literature and writing, and at times, it bordered on too meta. Sometimes I wanted to be able to get it for myself, but instead, it was handed to me on a philosophical level that didn’t quite ring true to the voice and understanding of a 15-year-old, no matter how much a book worm she was. I don’t think this will be a turn off for readers, though, as I suspect many teens who will relate to Keek will think they’re just as deep as she is, despite a lack of life experience and perspective to prove otherwise to them.
I think this would be a good book to hand to fans of Leila Sales’s Mostly Good Girls because of the voice, but it’s one that I think most teen girls who like to read will appreciate. If this one had been around when I was 15, I could see it becoming a bit of my own Bell Jar. It was the little things — the setting in suburban Chicago, the passion for reading, the family issues — that resonated with me on a real personal level, and I can’t wait to start talking this book up with my big readers. Teen readers of classics will enjoy this one, too, as will your fans of Sylvia Plath (and you know who those kids are!). This is the kind of book where your passionate readers will underline passages and soak them in, mimicking Keek’s actions with Plath’s novel. Even I admit to underlining and noting a few really good lines in her, including my favorite, “This is the thing about great literature. It reads like truth and sticks to you forever and lets you know you’re not alone.” What a knockout debut.
Copy received from the publisher. And Then Things Fall Apart is available now.