Calle Smith and her mother move a lot. Every time her mother breaks up with another man, the two of them pack up and move. Twelve different places in the last eight years. When Calle finds herself in Andreas Bay, she doesn’t expect to for anything to be different, but it is. She makes friends, and she starts to fit in. Calle knows what her mother is like, though, and she can’t help but feel that it’s all temporary. As secrets about her mother’s past with her father begin to emerge, it makes Calle question everything she thought she knew about their lives.
Kim Culbertson’s debut novel is one of those solid, quiet stories that’s really good and pretty satisfying and yet doesn’t make a very big splash upon release. Unlike a lot of the titles I’ve been reading and reviewing lately (books whose hype has preceded them so much that they can’t help but be a total let down, books whose authors received six- and seven-figure payments for the books), Culbertson’s understated story about Calle and her mother doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a simple coming-of-age story about a girl who loves music.
For the most part, Culbertson carries it off. Each chapter begins with a snippet from Calle’s music journal, in which she writes about a memory she associates with particular songs. These entries offer insight into who Calle is (a pretty decent writer) as well as providing background information about how and why she and her mother have moved around so much (every move has to do with a man leaving her mother). It was a nice touch, but it seemed in danger of becoming a bit too gimmicky near the end.
Credit should also be given to Culbertson for crafting such realistic, natural characters. Calle herself is a normal girl, and her friends are pretty normal, too. Sam, the football player she ends up crushing on, is cute but has a complicated home life that’s drawn well, without lapsing into cliche. Even Calle’s mother, who could have been played as a flighty, selfish, almost manic type is given surprising depth. Extreme care and respect were given to even the most minor characters, and that is worth appreciating.
For the most part, the story ambles along (this is not a fast-paced novel, but it is compelling in its own right) in a realistic way. As Calle sets down roots in town, she begins to worry that getting attached will only make things worse when she and her mother inevitably leave. This is the driving tension of much of the story. The addition of information about Calle’s father brings in some additional dramatic tension. Again, Culbertson mostly carries it off until the very end, which is where things sort of fell apart for me. Readers will be divided about this ending: critical readers will find it either too neat or too melodramatic while others might find it just right.
Highly recommended, especially for fans of music.
Songs for a Teenage Nomad by Kim Culbertson. Hip Pocket Press, 2010. Purchased copy for Kindle.