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Reviews Wed Sep 23 2009

Review: Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert

ballads of suburbia.jpgBallads of Suburbia
by Stephanie Kuehnert
(MTV Books, 2009)

Kara McNaughton is in her sophomore year of high school when her parents get divorced. Having moved from Chicago to the suburb of Oak Park the summer before she entered second grade, Kara's family little resembles the idyllic white-picket-fence, carefree life that the notion of the suburbs often evokes. It is here that the McNaughton family falls apart, here that Kara finds destructive ways to cope with disappointment and stress of a life thrown off its course, here that she carelessly leads her younger brother Liam into that destruction, and here that she loses herself in drugs. If life in the suburbs is being sold under the guise of beauty, tranquility and safety, Kara McNaughton, and author Stephanie Kuehnert, are here in Ballads of Suburbia to tell you that all of that is a lie.

For Kara, life begins to drift off course when her best and only friend Stacey moves to Berwyn and the two are split up for the first time in their lives. Faced with entering high school alone, Kara relies heavily on the idea that she and Stacey will maintain their close friendship despite their physical distance. When Stacey forsakes the blood-pact they made the summer prior for a social life filled with new friends and boys, Kara does the only thing she can think of to relieve her emotional pain and begins making small cuts in her left arm. It isn't until the following year that she meets Maya, a new student with dyed red hair and jeans covered in ink sketches who, due to her similar outsider status, quickly befriends Kara with her disdain for the popular high school socialites who have done nothing but make Kara's life miserable.

Through Maya, Kara is introduced to a whole host of characters who all but live in the nearby Scoville Park. There's Cass, Maya's cousin who desperately misses the brother who left for California; Quentin, a quiet, endearing boy with pale skin and long hair in dark braids; Christian, the would-be savior who defends Maya and Kara against the snotty comments of their female classmates; and Adrian, the boy who simultaneously uplifts Kara's spirit while bringing down into further ruin. The lesson Kara learns through these fellow outcasts is that her story is not unique: she is not the only one with a deteriorating family life, issues with school and an inability to find constructive ways to cope. Through these people she learns for the first time that she is not alone.

However realistic a portrait of a specific side of suburban life Kuehnert draws here, certain aspects of the characters remain off-putting. The crying jags present in a large portion of the book's scenes, by both the male and female characters, and the characters' penchants for precisely articulating their every emotion work to undermine their otherwise hardened personas. At one point, Kara jokes that a particular scene plays out like an episode of 90210, but the truth is that much of the book does read like an overwrought teen drama. True, the high school years are some of the most melodramatic of one's life, but, unlike Kuehnert's characters, few individuals are so cognizant of this melodrama as to be able to spell out its causes and effects in exact detail. These characters may sport tattoos and Manic-Panic-colored hair, but underneath all of that they are as excessively emotive and vulnerable as this generation's crop of CW stars.

Nevertheless, what Kuehnert does successfully is to dispel the myth that life in the suburbs is perfect. She champions the belief that every kid has a story and that every story deserves to be heard. The Karas, Staceys, Liams, Mayas and Adrians of this world will find something of themselves here, and for every negative stereotype associated with this group, Kuehnert is careful to shine a light on the positive aspects of each and every member. Kara's life is neither a fairy-tale nor a tragedy, but a combination of the highs and lows that make up the emotionally charged teenage years studded with moments that will ring true to all those who have lived through them.

* * *

Ballads of Suburbia was published in July. To learn more about Stephanie Kuehnert and the story behind her novel, please visit her website.

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