Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Review: Small Damages, by Beth Kephart

Small Damages
by Beth Kephart
293 pages

One of the most indulgent things about reading a Beth Kephart novel is getting the sense of being fully transported into another time and place. For example, in The Heart is Not a Size, she immersed her reader in the heartbreak that is Juarez, Mexico. With Dangerous Neighbors, one is swept back into 1876, at the height of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

This literary levitation is one of the reasons why Kephart's books lend themselves so well to being read in one sitting.

That's certainly not a requirement in order to experience the extraordinary sense of place and time that make up a Beth Kephart book, but that is precisely how I tend to read her books, including Small Damages, her fourteenth.

Like the reader of her coming-of-age story, Kenzie Spitzer has also been suddenly whisked away - to southern Spain, banished by her detached mother who is more concerned about what people might think about 18 year old Kenzie's unplanned pregnancy than what Kenzie herself might want or need.

And what Kenzie needs, we learn, are several people she once had but who have now been made distant by the separation of two oceans or two worlds. Her once-best-friend-turned-boyfriend Kevin (and the father of the baby) is enjoying a carefree summer with her friends on the Jersey shore. Her father is dead, gone in an instant from a heart attack. Replacing them all are strangers in the old cortijo in Spain where Kenzie, abandoned by her own mother (a parallel for her own connection to her unborn child) is sent to live, until she has her baby and until it is given up for adoption - no questions asked, no input from Kenzie.

In Spain, Kenzie stays in a villa with Estela, a cook who is an acquaintance of a sorority friend of her mother's. There's Miguel, Luis, sensitive Esteban, a band of musical Gypsies, and the couple who plans to adopt the baby.  Each of them has something to teach Kenzie about love, about secrets and regret, about loss, about healing, about distance and time.
"Distance isn't the end of love." She touches her heart and closes her eyes. "You write to him, Kenzie. If you love him."
"Maybe he doesn't love me anymore. Maybe that's how it is."
"Know your own heart first. Be careful."
(pg. 77) 
"Nothing goes away, Esteban says, after a long time passes. Not the things you remember, and not the things you still want." (pg. 152)
When you read a Beth Kephart novel, you expect an immersion in color, in poetry and language, a sensory experience, an exploration into the heart. Small Damages is no exception. Here, we feel the heat of the Spanish sun; we hear the sizzle and pop of the onions in the pan while Estella prepares paella; we see the brilliant colors of the oranges and smell their fragrance. We feel Kenzie's hurt and heartbreak; it is palpable on the page. (Since she has lost her dad, she might do well to become acquainted with Katie D'Amore, who lost her mom and who we met in Beth's novel Nothing But Ghosts, which I reviewed here. They do reside in pretty close proximity on Philadelphia's Main Line, after all.) 

Through it all, we go to Spain and back again within the folds of a story that is laden with symbolism and meaning - For it is impossible to miss the religious symbolism and life and death undertones in Small Damages. (Yeah, I'm going to go there.) 

It's more prevalent here than in any other of Beth's books I've read, yet is handled beautifully and with such grace. From the presence of the nuns "blackbirding by" to the visits to Necropolis to Kenzie's mother's declarations of what to do about the baby ("I'm calling Dr. Sam. We're going to fix this." "Fix it?" I said), to Miguel's bulls that will soon be taken away, to Kenzie's tender interactions of addressing the baby directly, to the birds (including actual STORKS!), to the storyline about adoption, to Estela's exclamations of Santa Maria, madre de Dios. All this, sometimes even within several paragraphs. 

"He points to the sky, and I hear what he hears - a church bell song and also a flamenco song - and suddenly I'm wondering what would have happened if I had had a plan this morning, had not woken up and cold showered and started walking on my way to who knows where. Think ahead, Kevin always said, but I don't know how to think anymore, or what to think about, and now, from around the bend come a bride and groom and a party, and suddenly I am thinking about you - how I wish you could see this, wish I could someday tell you how, at the end of the procession, there was a pig and after that pig there were four boys chasing it straight through the streets.
Your eyes are on the sides of your head, and then they move forward. They are black seeds, and then they blink. I can't remember if it's happened already. You're not some tiny half inch anymore. You're a baby, my baby, but you won't be. You aren't. You are Javier and Adair's, and I know nothing - they're telling me nothing - about them. 
'I have something for to show you,' Miguel says, when the crowd is gone and the pig is lost and we can still hear the holler of boys. He takes me around to the other side of town. 'The Necropolis,' he says. It's a low hill relaxed beneath the shade of cypress trees. We walk between slabs of stone walls and down into a world carved out of sand, a world of Roman ruins. 
'Two hundred tombs,' Miguel says, and he says, 'Go and see,' He stays where he is. I walk alone through walls that seem carved out of earth toward rooms that definitely are, and everything is timeless, everything is smooth, everything is like it must have always been. Gone is gone; it lasts forever." (pg. 87) 
In this life, none of us escapes unscathed. We're all left with damages, small and large. Through Kenzie's eyes, we see those and those of the people in her midst. We see the sting of regret, but we also see the power of choices. Small Damages reminds the reader that even when we think they aren't, our choices are still there, always ours for the making.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles , If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I like the way you described reading this book as a sensory experience. I love to armchair travel, so this writer sounds perfect for me.

Beth Kephart said...

Melissa — this is magnificent. Just absolutely magnificent. The quality of review I would expect to find in a Washington Post... and, beyond that,almost impossibly, a review about a book I loved writing. Your analysis is so spot on. It's as if you were here when I was writing this. As if you could see what I intended (but did not hope to believe I had achieved). This is truly beautiful. I have been at a funeral all morning, for a man who was all about color and life. I came home to a note from my publicist that I needed to read this review.

I did. I have. And I am so grateful.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Melissa! It occurs to me that I've read all of Beth Kephart's books in one sitting: from curiosity, from affection, and from an unwillingness to return to wherever I was before I was transported by her compelling prose!

Serena said...

I'm looking forward to reading this on my upcoming day off this next week!

Wendy said...

Melissa - this is an absolutely stunning, beautiful written review of a book which touched me deeply. You have done it a great service in your carefully chosen words and your deep understanding of the meanings behind Beth's words. Wonderful!

patti.mallett_pp said...

Wonderful review, Melissa!! I adore Beth (though I've yet to meet her) and her writing. I either own or have "borrowed" most of her books. "You Are My Only" I read in nearly one long sitting. (In bed most of the day, couldn't put it down, and am a very slow reader.)

"Small Damages" I needed to take slowly. (As I said, slow to process.) I would read a couple of chapters and then think about what I'd read. Go over the details as I went through my day.

Another reason for the slow pace was that I didn't want it to end. There is only one first reading of any book. I parceled out pages like one might break off squares of a chocolate bar that was a gift from some far-away trip a friend had taken.

Anyway- this is one reader's experience.