Do you remember what it was like during those awkward, exciting years between childhood and adulthood? Did you ever want to shine your uniqueness at the world and, at the same time, desperately want to blend into the crowd and become completely invisible? Did you ever curse your parents' stupid rules and then want them to tuck you in at night? In her second Young Adult novel Ketchup Clouds, English author Annabel Pitcher explores this hormone-laden, confusing, thrilling time with remarkable accuracy, and she is brilliant at portraying how innocent curiosity can lead to adult situations all too quickly.
The protagonist, Zoe (a pseudonym), is a fifteen-year-old girl swimming in guilt. She has fallen in love with one boy, started a physical relationship with another, and lied to them both, the consequences of which are fatal. It's tearing her up inside. Late one sleepless night, she decides to confess her sins to someone who might actually understand the burden of her secret. Not her parents god no! They're too busy arguing about her ailing grandfather to notice anything at all. Instead she turns to Mr. S. Harris, a death row inmate thousands of miles away in Houston, Texas, convicted of murdering his wife and a neighbor. In Zoe's letters to Mr. S. Harris she confesses everything: the parties, the drinking, the topless photo of her sent around the entire school, her relationship with Nick, actually falling for Aaron, all the lies and the death.
With an obvious understanding of the adolescent heart and a gift for natural dialogue, Pitcher conveys Zoe's yearning to be an adult and how it feels to fall in love for the first time. She gives readers a solid context for Zoe's family life why she feels like she can't approach her parents, her overflowing love for her seven-year-old sister Dot who is deaf and may undergo cochlear implants, and her close bond with her ten-year-old sister Soph. (One of my favorite scenes is one in which Zoe and Soph hide out in their mother's shoe closet with pens in their mouths, pretending to smoke, and talking out some pretty serious issues bullying, boys, the pressure from Zoe's mom for her to become a lawyer.) Pitcher successfully captures the real complexity and overblown drama of being an adolescent, and she certainly brought me back to memories I thought I had long forgotten.
Initially, the format of an adolescent girl writing letters to a prisoner was very interesting to me. The fact that Zoe feels as guilty as a death row inmate brings a gravity to her story, and her free and casual letters with someone so dangerous adds to the ever-building tension. However, about half way through the book I began to wonder what purpose Mr. S. Harris was actually serving. Zoe doesn't give him her actual address (she tells him she lives at 1 Fiction Road), so there's no real correspondence; the letters are simply a way for her to work out her issues and to begin a healing process. While that may be good for her, it bothered me that she felt so comfortable using another person. Her selfish oblivion highlighted that she didn't have any real regard for a human being who was about to die for what he had done, and certainly no real understanding of his guilt. He's simply a prop for her teenage drama. For example she writes, "I wonder if you've marked your calendar with a cross on May 1, or maybe you've just written 6 pm lethal injection, and all I can say is I hope you're not afraid of needles like Lauren, who fainted twice at school vaccinations and almost swallowed her tongue. It must be so strange to know when you're going to die. All that buildup of tension. Sort of like Christmas, but without the turkey, unless you've ordered that for your final meal."
The ending, too, felt somewhat superficial. Despite having meaningful and highly informational conversations with various people throughout the story, Zoe doesn't seem to gather the courage to confront what seems to be her most difficult hurdles. This undermines the growth and maturity Zoe supposedly gained by sorting out her emotions and working through her problems. The book takes on too many issues murder, a love triangle, a topless photo texted around the school, teen drinking, bullying, family fighting to resolve them all, but to her credit, Pitcher doesn't leave any threads hanging.
Overall, Pitcher creates a captivating and enjoyable romance filled with tension, danger, and adolescent drama that makes for a quick read. I recommend Ketchup Clouds to young adults, and parents who are interested in getting inside the heads of their young teenagers. Ages 12+
This review is from the January 8, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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