The teens in Stephanie Kuehnert's second novel (following I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone) are dealing with a lot of shit. The protagonist, Kara, is in a love triangle with two appealing bad boys--one who hurts her emotionally and one who hurts her physically. She and her friends are dealing with divorced, dead, depressed, and/or distant parents. They cope with drugs, alcohol, and self-injury. It's a hard read sometimes, but you get through it because you care about the characters.
The book opens with an epilogue, which lets you know right away that some of the kids survive. Opens with the epilogue--such an interesting choice! Thankfully, the epilogue has a part two, so you're not left hanging with as little information as you start with.
Kuehnert's characters grow up fast. At the opening of Ballads only a few years have passed since the events that make up the bulk of the story. She's in her early 20s. She's buried friends, seen her childhood bestie--the daughter of a teen mom become a teen mom herself, weathered ugly family strife, and somehow become whole.
Despite its name, Ballads isn't quite the music-is-my-life story that I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is, but the soundtrack is ubiquitous, with song lyrics setting the mood for each section, and for the titular ballads. The story is mostly narrated by Kara, but the main characters all get a chance to share an incident that informed their outlook through a shared journal that documents their past but is also a symbol of hope for the future.
Let me pause my praise with one complaint. The typeface is the worst. It's light and hard to read. The ballads are in slightly darker ink, which I guess means something, but doesn't help. Or is it just my elderly eyes? The book is an MTV imprint, so maybe if the type is too light, you're too old?
Now, back to my review. In chapter five Kuehnert lets us in on the meaning of the title
We saw famous bands, local bands, whoever happened to be playing an all-ages show whenever we happened to need to get the hell out of the house. That was the ballad of suburbia: give me loud to drown out the silence.
Suburbia in this case is affluent Oak Park Chicago, close enough to the city to be on the L line. I also grew up in suburbs, but they were an hour outside the city by commuter train. Maybe be that close to the action made it all the harder to deal with the lack of action. My friends and I got into trouble, too, and had a society outside of our parents, but dang, things did not get as intense in my crowd as they did in Kara's. I got to wondering if any of the kids in my suburban high school lived lives more like Kara's friends. I think I would have noticed people ODing and having babies, or maybe I'm forgetting, maybe the kids in Oak Park had more disposable income to spend on risky behavior, or maybe kids did more heroin in the 1990s than in the 1980s.
Weird observation: the boys in the story mostly have names that end in N: Adrian, Christian, Harlan, and Quentin. What's up with that?
Here's a trouble observation from Kara:
"I took one last look at Adrian, the boy who I'd come to think of as my soul mate, his face resting beside a puddle of puke, and went after my friends."
Oh boy. You know this girl is in for it, and so does she.
And when she's with another love interest:
"But then, as my heart rate slowed, I started to feel insecure. I realized that I was naked, sweaty, and it couldn't possibly be pretty. Flat on my back, my arms and legs at crooked angles, I resembled a chalk outline of a dead body on the mattress."
Yep, still in trouble, and still on some level self-aware about it.
Also some nice language. This from Kara's younger brother Liam in his ballad, "I shrugged and extended the joint, trying not to act as awkward as I felt with this gorgeous girl standing over me, gleaming beneath the shitty streetlamp that made everyone else look nicotine-stained."
"Nicotine-stained" brings to mind a formerly white filter and people complicit in hastening their demise.
Kara (and Kuehnert) thinks that kids wouldn't be as fucked up if their parents spent more time with them. "Since Shelly's dad was a lawyer, he got out unscathed, but he sent Shelly to rehab and then boarding school, because obviously spending less time with his daughter was the solution." The parents in Kara's circle are not especially hands on, shall we say. Mine weren't either. Some of my friends' were, and some weren't. I'm not a parent myself and haven't studied parental involvement with teens, so I really don't know how much teens need to be monitored and engaged with. I feel like I would have chafed at anyone asking me about my homework or paying a lot of attention to my comings and going. I wonder if it would have been good for me. Probably.
I was grateful for the author Q&A at the end of the book, because it's a hard story to walk away from. You need a denouement. It's nice to read what inspired Kuehnert and to further understand how important the characters are to her. The story isn't drawn from her experiences directly, other than the cutting, but you know that she has an emotional connection to abuse of many kinds. It's also nice to know that, like Kara, after what was presumably not an easy coming of age of her own, she's doing well.