We are in the final lap of summer, but this is one book you'll be able to savor on into autumn. It's a perfect book to take you into October Country; bittersweet, funny, very sharp and smart. It's a book about grief - grieving - holding it together until you can't, then falling apart, so that you can get up, and go on.
Summary: Fifteen-year-old Leigh has had a craptastic last few years. Her older sister, Kai, was diagnosed with leukemia when Leigh was eleven. Their carefree, sunny, seaside Mendocino home turned dark and depressing. Three horrible years were spent reading the Little House books aloud, holding the bucket while Kai vomited, and watching as her hair fell out. All she could eat was York Peppermint Patties, which soon became Leigh's obsession too. Her parents, Wade and Meredith, were stretched to the limit -- with nothing left for Leigh's needs, and so Leigh learned to have no needs - not even for new clothes. She wore a single pair of pink sweats for an entire school year. Fortunately, she was saved by a school friend, Emily, and Emily's mother, whose warm concern and affection refused to let Leigh sit in a silent lump at school - and even bought her jeans to replace the nasty, outgrown sweats. Leigh was drawn out of herself, and saved. And then, Kai got better. Life at home improved. Suddenly, the summer ahead seemed like it was full of light and beauty -- everything was better, everything. Only there was the difficult summer to get through - Emily going to Scout Camp, Kai and Leigh, foisted off by exhausted parents to their grandparent's house. And then -- instead of returning home to Mendocino, they were given bus tickets to Hangtown... Sierrawood, where their father had bought a cemetery. Leigh can't get hold of Emily, and she is gutted. And then, it gets worse.
But, at least Kai is better. Sure, she's off to track meets and finds a boyfriend she doesn't tell Leigh about, but at least she's alive. Sure, Leigh is stuck working first three days a week at the cemetery after school, then every day, but at least she has help - Dario's there. Sure, Meredith's disappearing to Mendocino and Wade's foisting off ninety percent of his work at the cemetery office to Leigh - because selling coffins and doing the horrible, horrible work of helping people pick graves as they weep makes him uncomfortable -- but it could be worse. Right?
Peaks: I hate calling books "quirky" so much, so I'll avoid that, and say that though topically, this book is unorthodox, it's truly funny and unique. Leigh's voice leaps off the page, and though the narrative initially moves slowly, she shines through. Though I gave more of a thorough summary than I normally would, you still don't have a sense of this book until you read it -- it's one of those books where the narrative arc is internal, and where the changing/growing happens not so much in dialogue exchanges, but within the main character's head. Leigh is a complicated character -- she knows she's ridiculous and choosing poorly in many cases, but she honestly does not see what else she could do, or is supposed to do. She's angry with her parents, resentful of her mother's abdication, horrified by her grandmother -- and yet, she's also very much wanting these people to take note, pay attention, and see her, that she's caught in a trap and can't extricate herself from the morass of grief - and duty - into which she's fallen.
Plenty of authors writing for adults delve into this sort of thing; it's a rare and respectful author who believes that teens will get it - and writes so that they do. This is Jennifer Longo's debut novel, and we hope there will be more of this caliber.
I also love novels which are set in Northern California. Often authors are afraid of defining settings too clearly, because then one has to be specific and detailed -- but the author used the perfect balance between real and literary imagination to give clear outlines of where the characters begin -- and how far they go. In this way, setting is also employed usefully as metaphor - which works.
Valleys: Though the characterizations are well done in this novel, there is limited diversity, which is curious, since the novel's setting is allegedly Northern California.
Dario is a problematic character -- and readers who know my grim distaste for the Magical Negro trope will see where he walks that very thin line between being a real character, and being a handsome, charismatic, brown-skinned Ken-doll for the author to move around. Dario is very much into talking about death, very into Día de Muertos as a Thing, and is very tsk-tsk to Leigh about her White American squidgy-ness about death. At one point he says to her "Americans hate a mystery. They've made death so dark and scary. Hateful. It is a door, it is beautiful; it isn't - it's not like here." (ARC) I have to admit that I rolled my eyes there - pretty hard. Though I was glad that there were diverse characters in this novel, I was disappointed that they only existed in the tiny world of the graveyard, they were predominantly poor indigents or laborers, and they were illegally in the country. Since the novel is set in California, only those people of color as representative seemed a bit of a stretch, even as far North as Placerville, which is Hangtown's real name.
Though Dario ticks all the boxes for the Magical Negro trope - an exceptional (as in "not like other Mexicans, he's the exception"), stock character with no real past who just appears one day, socially constrained by being in the country illegally AND by being a gravedigger, there to help the Caucasian main character, dispenses somewhat mystical wisdom - there's a little twist in his and Leigh's relationship at the end of the novel which saves him from being a total plot device, and nudges him toward being a person. I saw it coming, but other readers may find themselves surprised - and wonder about his motives toward befriending Leigh in the first place. This may cause some vigorous discussion!
I have a quibble with the cover as well - The novel makes a big point of the fact that Leigh wears one pair of jeans, just about always... so the lacy little slip dress? With... are those tights!? - in a graveyard, in which she sometimes has to dig is a completely out of character and quite a little bit ridiculous. A dress at all is out of character. But, what can an author do about her cover? Not much, so ...
Though slightly uneven, this is a promising debut nonetheless.
After August 26th, you can find SIX FEET OVER IT by JENNIFER LONGO everywhere; online, or at an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore near you!