Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bad Kids

Lily, Noah and Simon are "bad kids." Or they think of themselves that way, and try to promote that impression of themselves. They smoke cigarettes and pot. They attend parties and partake in underage drinking. Noah is a dealer. The three of them are best friends, and spend much of their time "hanging out," getting high, listening to music, skipping class.

The story of the Absolute Value of -1, by Steve Brezenoff is told three times. Once by each of the main characters. The voices are distinct and enlightening. Lily is bright, witty, self-deprecating and over-analytical. Noah is hyper, playful and a bit defensive. Simon is introspective, insulated and sad. While each of the story's events is repeated three times (unless a character significantly leaves something out), you never feel as if you can see something coming. Every character reveals something new about each incident, about themselves and about the other characters. As you read, you're only drawn in to the story more to find out what else you can learn.

Like all relationships, this trio's is complicated. For one, they're all dealing with difficult situations at home. Lily's parents are recently divorced. Noah's father is abusive. Simon's father is ill, maybe terminally. And yet they are all painfully reluctant to lean on each other, preferring to keep their family lives mostly separate and contained. Each of the three has issues with the others. Lily is desperately attracted to Simon and Noah is desperately attracted to Lily. Meanwhile, Simon and Noah each consider the other his best friend. This particular triangle is not really a secret between all of them, but it is awkward to talk about, and, of course, causes certain difficulties. Finally, they each have other secrets, some small and some large, that they're keeping to themselves, out of fear and self-protection.

With this triple narrative, Brezenoff gives readers an honest view of kids' reality, of their difficulties coping with family, of their dual identities as they struggle with who they want to be and who they're comfortable showing the world, and with their vulnerable attraction to others. All three characters, in the end, are wounded, but also tough and funny and inspirational. They are also lonelier than they really need to be. As a reader you want to reach into the book and grab each of them by the shirt collar and shake them and command them to look at their friends and realize what they've got and protect it and care.

The narratives are not perfectly balanced. In the end the story belongs to Simon, the final narrator, and although he has the most compelling story to tell he does not have the most engaging voice--that honor falls to Lily who opens the book. Noah is slighted a bit, having the briefest narrative, tucked into the center of the book. And because the last word belongs to Simon, his two friends' stories are left a bit hanging.

But this unsettling conclusion is part of the point. Relationships, especially kids' relationships, are living, writhing things. And while Noah and Lily and Simon may seem at the outset to be locked into an everlasting friendship, their growth means that things are going to change, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously. And after the book ends, Brezenoff leaves us with the notion that these characters will keep on changing and there's no point in trying to stop them.

The Absolute Value of -1 will be released September 1 from Lerner Publishing.

An electronic review copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

Cross-posted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp

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