Small Damages by Beth Kephart – Reviewed by Lauren Strohecker
Small Damages by Beth Kephart
Published: July 19, 2012 (Philomel)
YA; 304 pages
A confession: I only picked up this book because A.S. King told me to.
I am a K-6 librarian with a huge soft spot for YA literature. Among my favorite writers is A.S. King, author ofThe Dust of 100 Dogs, Printz Honor Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Everybody Sees the Ants, and the upcomingAsk the Passengers. More than a talented writer, A.S. King is a passionate advocate for independent bookstores, libraries, and literacy, and an all-around inspiring human being. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her and hearing her speak a few times, the most recent of which was at the 2012 PAYA young adult literature festival this August. While chatting with her there, I asked what she’s been reading this year, and without hesitation she pointed to Beth Kephart, who was signing books in the next seat, and asked if I’d read Small Damages. She then told me how beautiful it was–one of her favorite reads of the year. I’d never heard of the book (or read anything else by Beth Kephart), but when A.S. King so enthusiastically recommends a book to you, what do you do? You immediately buy it and begin reading, of course!
Small Damages follows eighteen-year-old Kenzie Spitzer from Philadelphia to southern Spain. Kenzie’s world is fractured by her father’s unexpected death. While Kenzie’s mother channels her energy into a new catering business and seems to be moving forward with her life, Kenzie cannot relegate her father to the past so easily. As the distance between them grows, Kenzie finds comfort in Kevin, a close friend-turned-boyfriend, and before long, she finds herself pregnant as well.
Kenzie’s mother arranges for her to spend the summer at a bull ranch near Seville—and for her to give the baby to a Spanish couple before returning home as if nothing has happened. As far as her friends are concerned, Kenzie is spending the summer learning about Spanish culture and cuisine. Naturally, Kenzie feels betrayed and abandoned, but as she learns to open herself to Los Nietos and the people who live there, she must face the consequences of her past and make some profound choices about her future.
In the author biography on the jacket flap, Small Damages is described as “Beth’s tribute to a country she loves,” and you can certainly feel Kephart’s deep affection for Spain, and her appreciation of its culture and history, throughout the book. Orange and olive trees nearly spring from the pages, and her writing is as lovely and lyrical as the warm Spanish breeze that carries their scent. Not a single word is wasted as she brings Seville and Los Nietos to life. Her characters are just as lovingly crafted: Estela, the curmudgeonly cook who takes Kenzie under her wing in the kitchen; Miguel, who is devoted to his bulls; and Esteban, who finds it easier to relate to his pet birds than to people. They are complex and beautifully drawn, and the relationships between them developed with care. Kephart deftly weaves their stories together, moving effortlessly between past and present and trusting the reader to draw conclusions from the glimpses we see of their lives.
I also appreciated that, while Kenzie’s pregnancy is certainly central to the novel, Small Damages is not an “issue book.” It’s an exploration of coming to terms with loss and the healing power of love in its many forms. It’s a story about what it means to find home, and the responsibility we bear to ourselves with the choices we make. It’s an altogether beautiful book, as promised, and I’m so glad that it found its way into my hands.
Lauren Strohecker is a K-6 librarian in the Philadelphia suburbs. As if that doesn’t give her access to enough books, she also works as a bookseller at an independent bookstore. She has been a proud book nerd since childhood, and her two favorite reading companions are her Bichon puppies. You can find her on Twitter as @lkstrohecker.