Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Jules, a senior, lives with her librarian mother, who is, by Jules’ lights, not much of one of mother. She dislikes her job at the library, cares indifferently for Jules, but she lives and breathes painting. And she’s got talent, too – but her humanity as a mother and her humanity as an artist seem to be two wildly different things, in Jules’ opinion. Sometimes she vanishes into her art and doesn’t surface for days. Jules is grateful for the roof over her head, but longs for the kind of mother who asks about her, is interested in her day to day, and who is more like her friends Leila and Gab’s mothers – women who show their love by cooking and providing a beautiful home, where nothing is taped together, or cracked. Unlike her mother, who is thrifty and tidy to the point of throwing away even memorabilia, Jules loves antiques, is fascinated by how the world was in days gone by — but with no grandparents, no antecedents, and no connections, she feels cast adrift in a world full of odds and ends – nothing with real value, nothing anyone would keep, or put in a museum.
Jules – on yearbook staff – has been asking for a baby picture for yearbook for weeks, and now that the deadline has passed, she finally goes into her mother’s room to find one… but discovers that there’s a nineteen month gap from her newborn photograph to when she’s almost two years old. Why aren’t there any good, real baby pictures? And, why’s there an envelope of paperwork from the Department of Children and Families? What happened in her and her mother’s lives? When Jules discovers the answer, her world tilts off its axis. She’s always wanted more of what she had – more family, more connection, more life, more love — and now she realizes that somewhere, she might have had it. Pursuing the connection she finds on the other end the love she feels she’s been denied. But, is it really all for her? Does she have the right to it? And, if she tries to grab all of that love with both hands… what happens to everything else? Wanting more can lead to having more, true – and some of the chances Jules takes have panned out into a past and a history she could never have dreamed existed. But, Jules is unable to let go of the temptation to have it all… with predictable results. After Jules is left with her hands empty, she has to learn to accept that you can’t have it all in life — but appreciating what you have is the key to everything.
“It didn’t escape me, despite all my angst about family, about finding family and having family and missing out on family that this was a very real thing I had: friends I would drop anything for. Friends I’d take a bullet for. Friends I’d handle dead rats for.
There is more than one kind of family.”
– RELATIVE STRANGERS, unfinished copy
Observations: This book will resonate with anyone who has had an unsatisfying relationship with their family, who ever dreamed of having been adopted, or who always wished they could be part of a huge, amazing family, or closer friends with the people with whom they hang out… which means that this book will resonate almost every teen at some time or another. There is such a huge well of wanting in Jules that her desires slip into the heart like a little hook. Is there anything so wrong with wanting more love? More family? More people to pay attention and SEE you? The desires seem innocent – and they are – but the narrative shows how easily pandering to the desire for more than what you have can ultimately overwhelm you.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a YA book quite like this before, which deals with the ignorance immaturity and privilege provides, convincing us to believe the convincing narratives others present to the world, and to envy them in a destructive way in response. Most people can pull back from that brink, identify that the lives we encounter – whether at work or school or digitally curated on Instagram – are airbrushed and carefully displayed for maximum affect. Most of us know that when people are out in public, they wear a public mask… however, this is a book about someone who believed the hype so thoroughly that she allowed herself to wallow in that envy, and made selfish choices based on what she believed she saw, what she believed people had that they could stand to share, and the luxuries of family and affection which she felt she needed but which she hadn’t been given.
Garner is a practiced write, and Jules’ voice is confident and assured – but there are other YA novels with that confident, wry, snarky voice. What sets this novel apart is that most of us aren’t able to articulate the dangers of …unexamined neediness, maybe let’s call it. Jules grieves for what she doesn’t have in such a realistic way – and the repeated lashings of grief, the haunting, nostalgic longing, the sadness and the hope blends together to make a truly beautiful, quiet, thoughtful, emotional read. (I teared up repeatedly through the entire last half, surprising myself.) This was an unusual book topically, and I can’t imagine how many fewer mistakes I might have made as a teen and nascent adult had I had this book then.
While there isn’t a lot of ethnic diversity necessarily, this book has titanium strong male and female friendships and a realistic depiction of the judgment and confusion surrounding understanding friends and a burgeoning sexuality.
Conclusion: A quiet, thoughtful book with humor and insight, and a HUGE miscalculation, which may catch some readers off guard, but to others may be perfectly understandable, if still cringeworthy. A very real book about fumbling our way to a very real understanding and acceptance of who we are, and what we truly need.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After April 10th, you can find RELATIVE STRANGERS by Paula Garner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!