Margo Rabb’s lovely Cures for Heartbreak came out way back in 2007. Kissing in America—due out at the end of this month—is her first book since. It has been totally, entirely, completely worth the wait.
It’s about 16-year-old Eva Roth, writer and poet at a “nerd-heavy” charter school in the Bronx, romance novel superfan, and only child. It’s about her mother, a professor of women’s studies at Queens College. And it’s about Eva’s father, who died two years ago in a plane crash.
It’s about Annie Kim, Eva’s best friend, who is brilliant and driven, but well aware that she doesn’t have the money to go to college. And it’s about Will Freeman, one of the few sports kids at Eva’s school, reader and older brother and son of a baker.
Kissing in America is about love and grief and friendship; about mothers and daughters, about blood relatives and kindred spirits; about the journey from childhood to adulthood, girlhood to womanhood. It’s about the different paths people take to America, and how those disparate paths and histories affect their children. It’s about fantasy and real life, and how you can embrace both; about feminism and romance, and how you can embrace both; about living in books and living in the world, and how you can embrace both. It’s about going somewhere for someone, versus going somewhere for yourself; looking forward to beginning Real Life, versus beginning Real Life right now, at this very moment.
The poetry Eva reads and Rabb quotes is impeccably picked—it’s predominantly by female poets, and it enhances and supports the story without overwhelming it, it highlights the timeless aspects of Eva’s journey and awakening without being too on-the-nose. The characters are three-dimensional—none of them are perfect, and none of them are evil—and their relationships are real and complicated and true. It’s beautifully written, smart and warm and sensitive—I dog-eared so many pages, marked so many phrases and passages that I loved for their rhythm or humor or vision or grace, that my dog-ears and markings became useless. It made me laugh until I choked, and it made me cry at the circulation desk—it’s a book that made my heart feel full.
I loved everything—EVERYTHING—about it, about Eva and her story and THE UTTER JOY of her habit of fantasizing about her life using Stereotypical Paperback Romance Voice:
Will took off his cowboy hat. As the moon rose into a perfect crescent in the indigo sky, he told her, “I know everybody supposes I’ll head off to Santa Cruz, but I ain’t goin’. I’m stayin’ here with you, Miss Eva. Now get over here and lie down with me by the creek on this bed of moss.”
And of COURSE I loved the parts of the trip where she actually MEETS real cowboys and experiences real ranch life and her fantastic back-and-forths with Annie and HOO-BOY her relationship with her mother and the depictions of peoples’ very different ways of working through grief, but as a librarian and a reading evangelist and a person who wholeheartedly believes in the power of story, I feel that I have to mention the thread about reading shaming. Because as much as I loved everything else about this book, that thread—which will be a relatively minor one for most readers—resonated with me so, so powerfully.
Eva loves romance novels. Not just culturally “acceptable” classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice and so on, but dime store paperbacks with half-naked guys on the cover. Books that some people only read on their e-readers, so as to avoid mockery. She takes a lot of heat for her reading choices, mainly from her mother—her mother mocks the books without having read them, she questions their quality, the intelligence of the fans, she argues that they celebrate and promote lies.
People read and prefer different books and genres and tropes for different reasons—Eva, in the aftermath of her father’s death, takes comfort from them, from the formulaic nature of They Meet, They Fall in Love, They Overcome Obstacles, They Live Happily Ever After. In mocking someone’s reading choices, you very well might be unknowingly punching her soft underbelly, poking her bruises, picking her scabs. When we shame someone for her reading taste—for something so intensely personal, something so rooted in her own history and personality and struggles—we’re creating a barrier, showing her that our presence isn’t a safe place, that she shouldn’t trust us with other pieces of herself.
Stories are powerful. Our connection to them is personal. One person’s trash is another person’s lifeline, and deriding someone’s reading choices will only ever result in two things—she will feel bad about herself, and she will tune you out.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.