A pair of debut reviews: Fingerprints of You and Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things

I’ve had a few books with outstanding reviews to post, and since two of them happen to be debut novels, I thought I’d go ahead and post these shorter reviews all together. “Shorter” is a very subjective description, as you should know by now if you’ve been reading STACKED. 

Lemon’s life has never been stable. Stella, her mother, uproots them often as she herself cycles through men. But one decision to sleep with the tattoo artist lands Lemon with a pregnancy she’s not sure she’s ready for. Mostly because she’s not sure who she is or what it is she wants. 

Except she knows she wants an adventure for her own to figure it out.

She and friend Emmy purchase bus tickets from their town in West Virginia to go to San Francisco. Lemon knows her dad’s there and even though she tells Emmy it’s part of the adventure they’ll take together during Christmas break, Lemon’s true intention is to find her dad. And when she tells her mom of her plans, rather than say no, her mom tells her where her dad last worked.

Lemon finds her dad and much, much more when she gets to San Francisco. Even when Emmy cuts her trip short because of a family emergency, Lemon sticks it out. She wants to know more about who she is, who her father is, who Stella is, and what life is like when you’ve lost the thing you didn’t know you wanted so badly.

Madonia’s book is a slow starter, and Lemon is a tough character to connect with. But the story and writing are compelling. Lemon’s got it rough, but she doesn’t moan about it. That’s probably what makes her hard to relate to — anyone else in this situation with an unstable life with mom and an absent father and an accidental pregnancy would wallow in pity. But she doesn’t. Instead, she takes control of her future by seeking out the pieces of her past.

Kristen-Page Madonia’s Fingerprints of You is about family and about how family doesn’t always take the nuclear shape we want it to. That family isn’t always the same to everyone within it. Stella, despite her shortcomings, is an excellent mother; but it’s not until Lemon gets to meet her father, who is also a fantastic, caring human being with a wife who, too, cares deeply about Lemon that she realizes how lucky she is. Even if it took 17 years to get, this is the family she needs. 

Where it would be easy to be frustrated by the miscarriage and the convenience of Emmy having to leave San Francisco, I thought they worked for the story. They allowed Lemon to experience real, hard loss with the baby and that allowed her to cherish what she had while she could. Emmy’s needing to return home forced Lemon to learn to lead for herself and forced Lemon to examine the value of friendship. It is ultimately Emmy who leads Lemon to the right choice — for the immediate future, at least.

Along with featuring a non-traditional family, this story features an interracial couple and does so without it ever becoming a point of the story. It’s a true urban relationship between Cassie and Ryan. Though it sounds like this is a story of being broken, it’s not at all an angst-laden, sad story. It’s quite easy to really want the best for Lemon and Stella because they do the best with what they have while they can. Sometimes the best stories don’t feature those in the bleakest of circumstances; rather, those stories you appreciate earn it because of the fight and determination the characters have for themselves. 

The romance between Aiden and Lemon is sweet, and I didn’t think it overshadowed the story. It was what it was to both of them, and it felt very much like a true teen relationship. I read Fingerprints of You a couple of months ago — about the same time I read Carrie Arcos’s Out of Reach, which I wasn’t crazy about — and while they don’t tread the same territory, Madonia’s contemporary is much more literary, fully-developed, and engaging that Arcos’s in a way that made me sort of wish this book had seen more attention. 

Fingerprints of You is available now. I purchased a copy of this book. 

Claire and her father just moves to Amherst, where Emily Dickinson lived. She’s become obsessed with Dickinson, to the point she’s breaking into the home (which operates as a museum) and she’s seeking comfort in there. It’s not really obsession with Dickinson so much as it’s a way to work through the grief in her life. In the last year, her mother died (she killed herself — and it wasn’t her first attempt, but it was the first time Claire couldn’t save her) and her best friend Richy went missing. Claire was a prime suspect in his disappearance since she was the last one to see him, but the case hasn’t been closed and no body has ever been found.

Through Kathryn Burak’s Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things, we see snatches of what happened in the last year and we watch as Claire works through the grief via the writing she turns into her teacher (and her student teacher Tate, to whom she takes a real shine, despite giving him a bit of a hard tongue). One night, Claire steals a dress from Emily’s home, since she’d been wearing it. It shrouded her in comfort. Tate catches her, and now he’s in on not only the fact she stole this historical artifact, but also that she’s dealing with something so large and heavy on her own.

I found this book dragged, pace-wise. Claire is hard to read, and it’s because this grief consumes her. But the thing is, Claire has something else going on psychologically and it’s never quite clear what. Her illogical thought patterns and erratic behavior make her difficult to follow and I found her hard to care about because, well, I never knew up from down with her. And worse, I didn’t care. Periodically, something in her would stir, and Claire would have a sudden memory that cut through the grief to help her through it — I think this is fairly realistic, especially as everyone grieves differently. More than that though and more problematic is that when she has these break throughs at one point, suddenly everything that happened to Richy that night comes clear to her. If you don’t wan to be spoiled, skip down a paragraph. Claire has a sudden break through with the name of who he was meeting and it was a mix up in her understanding of the word “Dentist” from “Dennis.” This made no sense to me as a reader. But when she figures that out, she suddenly finds this Dennis and remembers his voice and voila, mystery of Richy’s disappearance is solved.  It seemed like there were a lot of conveniences in the plot, and the mystery never quite wove into the grief well at all. A lot of loose ends, with a not-all-there character made the connections a little sloppy.

I’d categorize this as literary only in the sense that it weaves in a lot of American Lit history within it, especially with Emily Dickinson. Though it could have been pushed a lot more and made a lot more interesting with that literary story line, I think. The writing in this is okay, though I found a lot of the transitions between Claire’s writing and Claire’s thinking jarring. It’s part of who she is, but from the reader’s perspective, it could have been smoother and still had the same effect. I particularly found the first few chapters of this book difficult to get through, to the point I almost gave up more than once. The hook wasn’t strong enough and Claire’s inconsistency weren’t holding me. 

Likewise — and this is also spoiler — the entire subplot with Tate and her and their maybe-maybe not romance was boring. I think because I never cared about Claire. She was so wishy washy, so all over the place. Something in her emotions and the emotions in the book never quite rang true nor felt poignant to me. Maybe it’s fair in just saying I did not like her. It’s not that she’s an unlikeable character, though. It was just personal.  

I certainly think there’s a readership for Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things, but I also think other books do grief much better. Readers who like literary allusions and who are fans of Dickinson will dig this. Maybe if I were more of a Dickinson fan, I’d have picked up on more — it’s possible I missed a lot because it’s been quite a while. I’m more of a Whitman myself (as if that weren’t clear from blogging alone). 

Also, this is worth mentioning because it annoyed me a lot: four times in this book someone’s appearance or expression was negatively compared to a librarian’s. That got old real quick and it’s a description that says nothing. Why four times? Also, really? A “librarian sneer?” I don’t even know what that means. Teens aren’t that fixated on librarian appearances to continually refer to it when describing someone. I’m reviewing from the ARC, so this could have changed in the meantime, but it bothered me nonetheless. 

Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things is available now. Review copy received from the publisher.

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  1. says

    I really like the sound of Fingerprints of You. I don't think enough YA books focus on family relationships and unconventional ones at that. Definitely one to check out

    • says

      The focus on family relationships was a huge, positive aspect of Fingerprints. It's a non-traditional structure and yet it's not dysfunctional.

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