CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 21. . . .February 6, 2015
The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing.
C. K. Kelly Martin.
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books, 2014.
238 pp., trade pbk. & html, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77086-411-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77086-412-2 (html).
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
“That was Renate,” Nicole announces after she hangs up. “Get this, the latest is that Orlando says he saw you in some guy’s car on Spruceland Avenue last night.”
“The cab driver?” Genevieve guesses.
“I said that too. But Renate says Orlando never said anything about a cab.” Nicole looks at me. “He said you were in this guy’s front seat next to him and that while he was driving you put your head down in his lap and started getting friendly with it. Would you believe that dickhead told her he was getting ready to take out his cell and start recording? Supposedly, the light changed and you sped off, which is a pretty convenient explanation for why he has no proof.”
Shit. Why did Orlando, of all people, have to spot us and go mixing the truth with his jerk-off lies. Gage and I were on Spruceland last night, when he was driving me back home, but nothing happened. Who would believe that, though? If I admit to being in a car with a guy lots of people will automatically think the rest of what Orlando said is true too. The funny thing is that even the part that’s a lie is sort of true, only it didn’t happen last night.
“You know what people would see if we followed Orlando around and taped him?”Genevieve says sourly. “Orlando jerking off alone in his car while he films other people getting off. That’s the extent of his sex life. He should buy himself a wrist brace before he develops carpal tunnel.”
Nearly 16-year-old Serena swears off boys after a humiliating incident at a drunken party. She’s joined by older students Genevieve and Nicole, themselves bitter about boys’ harassment and betrayal. Serena focuses her attention on finding her missing older drug addicted brother Devin, and her new part-time job at a drug store. It isn’t long before she meets and falls for Gage, a 19-year-old separated father of four-year-old Akayla. With her parents self-destructing over Devin’s choices and disappearance, and hiding her relationship with Gage, Serena is an emotional basket case. And then there’s the sex that Gage refuses to participate in because of her age and his past history with Akayla’s mother. By spring, Serena turns 16 and finds her brother Devin, releasing her attachment to him.
Serena is a bright self-absorbed girl, obsessed with keeping off the pounds she has recently lost, and constantly wondering what others think of her. She is critical of her older brother, Morgan, a successful TV personality, but she admires his partner, Jimmy, who manages people with grace and aplomb. Serena’s emotional life revolves around her new friends and her two faithful old friends from middle school, Izzy and Marguerite. Serena is scornful of her parents’ depression and fights with them even though she understands their despair over the loss of their son to addiction. She alternates between longing for the return of Devin, the brother she was closest to, and fury over his rejection of her and their family.
Gage is a charming, serious, polite boy, committed to his role as a father but immature enough not to realize Serena’s age and how he compromises her reputation and makes her parents fearful. It’s a little odd that he begins and continues a relationship with a girl so much younger than himself. Serena’s parents present the collapse of parents whose child chooses drug addiction. It is painful to watch their waiting and loss and their inability to connect with Serena because of their grief. Serena’s friends represent the coziness and fierce loyalty that high school friendships can provide, rescuing her when her parents fail her. Devin’s behaviour demonstrates the paranoid anger that meth addiction produces.
Serena is forthright about her sexual desire and her enjoyment of sex, about which she feels little compunction, guilt or regret. The technology used and language employed are typical of any high school, and dialogue is quick and to the point, revealing character and emotions. The plot is secondary to Serena’s emotional life, so a slow third quarter of the novel dominated by Serena’s introspective musings is revived only by Serena’s finding Devin and resolving her hopes for reconciliation.
The issue of sexual harassment and how to deal with it will resonate with intended readers. The message to be ruthless to those who seek to destroy your reputation, to be careful not to provide evidence that could compromise your reputation, and to surround yourself with loyal friends comes through loud and clear. A subtler message is sent in Devin’s ugly life and how it impacts his family: a strong warning better than any lecture from health professionals. Although no happy ending seems possible for Devin, he does connect with Serena in the end.
The setting is firmly Toronto and nearby small town Glenashton, with French names, an ice skating show at the Air Canada Centre and travels on the Toronto transit system. References to popular culture abound and will draw in the intended audience.
Teenage girls attracted to the morass of emotional drama that can dominate teen life will devour The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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