Paradise, Nebraska, is anything but—especially for a pregnant teenager looking to escape a stifling small town and her memories of her younger brother’s violent death.
Jade Engler has no second thoughts about leaving her careworn, feckless father and foolish stepmother to find her mother Rexanne, who decamped months ago after Jade’s brother Benjamin died at the hands of local boys who had taunted him for his effeminate ways. Jade is racked by guilt. She had never stopped Ben's tormentors from bullying him, and she’s even had sex with several of the possible culprits—perhaps, she muses, to provide herself with a replacement little brother. At length her travels take her to New England, where she works as an au pair and finds her mother caring for Jade’s near-senile grandmother and coaxing the family history out of the old lady before she dies. Searching for truth and wisdom in her own aimless way, Jade is intrigued by the stories of her rebellious grandmother and great-grandmother; and she listens as well to the earthy advice of Pearline, a Jamaican cleaning woman who works for various upscale married couples. Jade can’t decide whether to give up her unborn baby for adoption when the time comes (several fortuitous upscale couples are ready and willing). Finally, her desultory journey ends in San Francisco, where she’s taken in by her stepmother’s gay cousin Robert. Here, nine months older but not noticeably wiser, she gives birth and quits brooding about her brother’s martyrdom.
A thoughtful but unsatisfying story, with trite prose, careless structure, and confusing changes in narrative voice. Bauer (Hollywood & Hardwood, 1999, etc.) veers perilously close to YA style this time, and that’s a pity, because her powerful subject certainly deserves a more passionate and focused exploration.