Book Review: Small Damages by Beth Kephart

12849260Small Damages
by Beth Kephart
July 19, 2012
304 pages
Source: ARC swap with Jen Ryland/YA Romantics
(Thank you again, Jen!)

It’s senior year, and while Kenzie should be looking forward to prom and starting college in the fall, she is mourning the loss of her father. She finds solace in the one person she trusts, her boyfriend, and she soon finds herself pregnant. Kenzie’s boyfriend and mother do not understand her determination to keep the baby. She is sent to southern Spain for the summer, where she will live out her pregnancy as a cook’s assistant on a bull ranch, and her baby will be adopted by a Spanish couple.

Alone and resentful in a foreign country, Kenzie is at first sullen and difficult. She begins to open her eyes and her heart to the beauty that is all around her and inside of her (taken from Goodreads.)

Opening Line

The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alley’s leaking off from the streets.

My Take on It

I recently swapped ARC’s with my blogger friend Jen, and Small Damages was the book I chose. I had to look the title and the author up online to read a synopsis because I was unfamiliar with both. From that I gleaned that the book dealt with teen pregnancy, not a subject I’m opposed to reading about, though not a subject that I feel compelled to read about either.  You know, just sort of middle of the road. But, what made me take a look at this book a little more closely was the setting: Spain. I have been reading a lot of books lately that feature a setting I have always wanted to visit. Flirting In Italian took me to Tuscany. Lovestruck Summer let me see Austin, The Sky is Everywhere showed me northern California (ok, I’ve been there but would love to visit again.) And I have always, always longed to travel to Spain.  I didn’t even read a review of Small Damages, I just went with my gut and asked Jen for it. Best. Swap. Ever.
Because I haven’t read any other books by Kephart (and she has a very impressive array of work under her belt) and because I didn’t read any reviews of Small Damages beforehand, I started this book completely blank. I wasn’t sure what to expect from her. What I discovered, from page one, is that Beth Kephart is one of those rare breeds that can take a collection of words and construct them in way that almost paints an image. Beth Kephart, like some of my very favorite authors, puts words to paper like an artist puts paint to canvas. I think if I could pick one author that reminds me the most of the way Kephart writes it would be Gayle Forman. Like Forman, Kephart’s writing is deeply emotive. Her words evoke visual images. I don’t just mean in the way she describes things. It’s more than that. Her writing is descriptive but it also has a quality to it that sets a tone or mood. Her expressions are subtle and nuanced. She has written prose, but with a very poetic quality to it.

When I open the door, a nun blackbirds by, and I keep walking out into the air, which smells like fruit and sun and the color blue; it smells like blue in Seville.

See what I mean? This passage came from page five. Once I read that, I knew I was hooked. And the book just got better.

When we first meet Kenzie, she is newly arrived in Seville, Spain and is about to set off for Los Nietos, the farmhouse (or cortijo) owned by Miguel, a friend of a friend of Kenzie’s mother, who has agreed to take her in until her child is born. The child will then be adopted by a couple Miguel knows and Kenzie will return to the States and start college in the fall. To say Kenzie is in a bad place would be an understatement. Not only is she pregnant, she recently lost her father, who in her own words, was her favorite. The father of Kenzie’s baby, Kevin, while not a bad guy, has decided to let Kenzie handle things on her own, in effect taking himself out of the equation by refusing to accompany Kenzie to Spain.Worse still, Kenzie and Kevin told no one, not even their very close knit group of friends, about the pregnancy. The only other person who knows is her mother, who proceeded to spirit Kenzie away for the summer until the baby is born and then plans to bring her home and act as if nothing ever happened. It is the way her mother deals with life’s hardships. It’s the way she dealt with Kenzie’s dad’s death, she grieved for a brief period of time, then swept it under the rug. Kenzie, however, is not like her mother.

I loved the character of Kenzie. She is just one of many complicated characters found within the pages of Small Damages. The majority of the book is written in the “now” but we do get to see what happened in the past, from the time just before Kenzie’s dad’s death up to the discovery of her pregnancy. It’s not only an effective way to tell the story, but it also shows the reader the person Kenzie once was, and the person she’s become since. Before, Kenzie was happy and part of a loving, supportive group of friends. But because she and Kevin chose not to tell anyone about the baby, she has isolated herself from that support. Her mom packing her off to Spain further cemented that isolation. The Kenzie we meet now is sad, angry, confused, resentful and frustrated. She feels helpless and out of control, and most of all, she feels alone and far way from home. She’s just biding her time at the cortijo, growing more surly and frustrated every day.

And that’s it. That’s it today; I can’t stand it. I can’t stand being here, on my own, invisible but also growing larger. I stumble from bed and shower in the cold water I can’t get used to–let the cold, cold water burn. I throw on a dress, head down the hall, cut through the courtyard, and it’s like I’m nowhere, like I’m already gone, like I will be gone four months from now. She was here then she wasn’t. Pretend it never happened. Under the tiled arch, down the chalk of road, I walk…

It’s sunflowers in the fields instead of bulls. It’s houses nobody lives in, horses nobody rides, a man on a mule trotting by. It’s abandoned wells and steam on the horizon, a cat crossing the road, and I can’t get enough distance.

One of the ways she deals with this loneliness is by speaking to her unborn child, and in fact the whole book seems to be a conversation between Kenzie and the baby. I think it’s in these small moments, when she’s addressing the baby, that I fell in love with Kenzie. Even though she acts bratty and petulant at times, as a mother, I still found that I could relate to her and sympathize with her through these interactions with her unborn child.

Though she feels alone, Kenzie is actually surrounded by a cast of colorful, vibrant, complicated characters, each with their own stories to tell. There is Miguel, the owner of Los Nietos and a breeder of bulls by trade. There is Esteban, who lives at Los Nietos and cares for the horses (more on him in a bit.) There are the Gypsies: Luis, Angelita, Arcadio, and the rest, who have traveled to the cortijo, and whose music is woven throughout the story.

Outside my window, in a puddle of courtyard moon, the Gypsies are singing some song… 

Estela turns to watch Arcadio on the loveseat, his guitar on his knee, his fingers running hard against the strings. Angelita pulls at her dress like it’s an animal, she works a pair of castanets. Joselita bangs at the half barrel, and whatever Bruno sings, Rafael chases with some turned-inside-out note of his own. The song is a black thing with wings:

Come with me, 
Come with me, 
Tell your mother I’m your cousin
I can’t think straight
When I see you on the street.
I can’t think straight,
And I keep on looking at you.

And there is Estela, the “Queen of Los Nietos.” All of these characters are important, but it is the relationship that develops between Kenzie and Estela that makes up the core of the story. Estela is bristly and sharp tongued, but beneath her prickly surface is a heart as big as the moon. She can be petty and jealous, but she has so much love in her. Estela is the backbone of the house, as most mother’s are. She cooks and cleans, and generally takes care of things around the place, including the people that live there. Cooking and the preparation of food plays a huge role in this book, and I loved that. The dishes Estela and Kenzie prepare, Albondigas de bonito, paella, flan, gazpacho, langostinos, are as much a part of the Spanish setting as the land itself.  The preparation of food is a steady backdrop as Kenzie and Estela become friends and we learn more of Estela’s own sad past. You guys, I have SO much love in my heart for that grumpy little Spanish woman, and her kinship with Kenzie is hands down one of my favorite “mother-daughter”  relationships I have read to date.

As Kenzie begins to heal and work through her emotions gradually accepting the ways, both good and bad, that her life has changed, a lovely backstory between Estela and Luis unfolds. I LOVE the way Kephart wrote this story within a story, it’s such a subtle yet powerful layer that helps to round out the entire tale.

And another subtle and sweet layer of Small Damages, is the connection that arises between Kenzie and Esteban, the quiet, private, pensive boy who also lives at the farm. I wasn’t sure the role Esteban would play in this book for he is most definitely written as a man of few words. But Kenzie and Esteban do strike up a friendship, and like Estela and Miguel, he becomes an important part of Kenzie’s new support system. You guys, I am big fan of romance in books. All kinds. I like the big, in-your-face romance of some books, but I also can appreciate the soft, quiet, less obtrusive romance like the one written in Small Damages. It is a completely different kind of animal, but no less breathtaking, heart pounding or effective. In many ways I was reminded of the love story between Puck and Sean in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. And if you have my review of that book, you know that I LOVE the romance between those two.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the setting, after all, it’s what drew me to this book in the first place. I loved Kephart’s descriptions of the Spanish countryside that is the setting of Los Nietos.  I loved reading about the hot, dusty, dry summer days and flat pastures filled with the toro bravos and olive and orange groves. Loved reading about the birds and the plants and the trees of the forest that Esteban loves. And I was equally awed by the city of Seville, with it’s many cathedrals and grand architecture. Beyond the land,  the people and the customs are also rendered beautifully. There is a magical quality to this place Kephart has written about.

The sky goes on for miles. Wherever there are cathedrals there is gold, and whenever I breathe, I smell oranges, and more and more, I feel confused. Across the way, the kids aren’t banging with their paddles anymore, and the old knitter is staring down toward the street, her eyes on the pack of Gypsies who have begun to dance and sing flamenco, who move forward now, slow, a parade. On the rooftops, a kid disappears and then returns with a basket of carnations on his arm. He tosses a red bud down to the ground, toward the Gypsy song. He tosses another. The Gypsies look up and a crowd starts to gather, and the boy keeps tossing flowers. Now the knitter leans in and takes a stem and throws it.

“Olé” says the boy with the basket.

I turn to the woman beside me. She says nothing, explains nothing. I turn and watch Miguel and his friends, who aren’t talking anymore, who have started to lean out, toward the flamenco. Miguel goes first–grabs a fat fistful of the blossoms from the bathtub, opens his hand, sprinkles them down, and all of a sudden, it’s like Seville is raining flowers in the sun.

I know from my research on the author that she has traveled and lived in Spain, and I feel like the above event was something she might have witnessed. It’s clear that she loves the country and that it is written from her heart. I love how with just a few words she can transport me to that place, and I feel like I am there, on that street, watching all those red blooms raining down on me.

This book is not a long one, but again, like Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, there is SO much punch packed into this slim volume. And without spoiling, I just want to say that the way Kephart chose to end this book is, in my opinion, PERFECT. It is one of those endings that just lifted me up and made my heart happy and hopeful.  I loved this book you guys, I love the journey that Kenzie takes, and I love the outcome of that journey. I think that the characters Beth Kephart has written are brilliant and I know they are going to stay with me for a very long time. I  hope, hope, hope that this little book gets the attention that it deserves. Small Damages has everything that I love about Young Adult (and New Adult) contemporaries and I know that this will not be the last book by Beth Kephart that I will read. There is a reason that readers and authors such as Ruta Sepetys (of Between Shades of Gray fame) are raving about this book. If you are a fan of contemporaries do yourself a favor and pick up Small Damages when it releases on July 19th.

5/5 Stars