Reviewed by Jonathan Fullmer
At the end of her junior year of high school—after nearly dying of a heroin overdose—Kara McNaughton flees her home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, only to return four years later to reconcile her past. But Kara hasn’t prepared herself for what she finds—namely, Adrian, the strikingly handsome rebel she knew she shouldn’t fall for, the one responsible for that near-fatal day.
So begins Stephanie Kuehnert’s second novel, Ballads of Suburbia, the story of Kara’s first three turbulent years of high school, where as an outcast she would cut herself when unable to grasp the overwhelming demands of teenage life. Through Kara’s misadventures we meet her angst-ridden, music-obsessed brother, Liam; Christian, the nice guy with anger issues; best friend Stacey, who dates with reckless abandon; and a cast of other hapless, heartbroken miscreants searching for respite from a world filled with bad love, hard drugs, and a whole lot of loud music. Interspersed throughout Kara’s tale—set apart visually by a different font, and emotionally by the characters’ widely divergent voices—are selections from “Stories of Suburbia,” a notebook in which her friends write their personal ballads, the types of mini-biographies with which Kara most sympathizes in the music she loves. But then comes Kara’s turn to write her own ballad, only she discovers that summing her life into three-minutes or less isn’t as easy as Johnny Cash or The Replacements make it seem.
Written in snappy prose that is sometimes lyrical and sometimes melodic, Kuehnert’s bold follow-up to last year’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is a rollicking success, a novel geared towards a young adult audience but with enough truth and humanity and energy to appeal to any age group.
Jonathan Fullmer is a freelance reviewer for Booklist and co-editor of Knee-Jerk magazine. His writing has appeared in Time Out Chicago, Bookslut, Word Riot, and Fictionary, among other publications.Posted on December 3, 2009 at 3:05 PM