This is the eighth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries.
In Beth Kephart’s Small Damages, high schooler Kenzie gets pregnant near the end of her senior year, having suddenly lost her dad the previous fall. Her Yale-bound, high-achiever boyfriend Kevin declines to link his own options to Kenzie’s, pointedly asking her, “What are you going to do?” Kenzie’s difficult mother, declaring “Someday you’ll be grateful,” packs her daughter off to Spain, where an old friend knows a couple that wants a baby.
So Kenzie finds herself on a ranch somewhere near Seville, where a well-known breeder raises bulls for the bullring. Confused and generally unpleasant to everyone around her, she’s placed in the care of Estéla, a gruffly commanding artist in the kitchen. Estéla seems to be an older person, though you have to read most of the book to puzzle that out. There’s also Esteban, who seems to be close to Kenzie’s age, and who seems to have a gift for befriending birds.
This is an interesting novel, and it makes you think and feel. It’s also confusing. Kephart carefully researched traditional Spanish culture, and she places us right in its midst — but, I think to create an impressionistic experience, she chooses to give us only spotty information. What do these characters look like, and how old are they really? What type of birds are the two that Esteban lives with; and who are the gypsies who appear, angering Estéla for a reason that only gradually clarifies, and who continue to hang around playing music? I, at least, had these questions and more.
Much that’s vivid does come through. We can all but smell and taste the dishes Estéla prepares, as Kenzie finally starts to open up and their relationship grows genuine and soulful. There are more bright glimpses of local culture, as when people toss flowers from rooftops in Seville down onto musicians in the street; but much of the story just floats in the vague space Kephart creates for it. Kenzie’s struggle with the choices that have been imposed on her, then with the essential one that only she can make, feels very real — and the unexpected decision she finally does make is believable and beautiful.
I’d love to see teenage boys everywhere read this book, though I think young readers might be a bit frustrated by the author’s way of storytelling. Kephart tries very hard to write beautifully and originally, and often she succeeds. But she doesn’t always keep the reader, puzzling through the story, uppermost in mind.