Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: PASADENA

Title: Pasadena
Author: Sherri L Smith
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240

The very first line captures our attention.

Seventeen-year-old Maggie Kim, of Korean ancestry and prone, it seems, to crazy errors, is found dead in her family’s swimming pool at their lavish home in Pasadena, on the outskirts of LA in California.

The narrator is Maggie’s best friend, Jude, who is away on the East Coast when she receives the news.

At first, Jude thinks it is suicide. The police and the coroner think it is an accident. But Jude cannot bring herself to believe that Maggie would ever kill herself. Months before, Maggie had called Jude, announcing her desire to kill herself, but she had not followed through, treating Jude’s fear as a huge joke. When it actually happens, Jude begins to suspect that Maggie may have been murdered.

Maggie and Jude are different, in terms of class, family background and level of sophistication. While Maggie is something of a free and wild thing, Jude comes across as sensitive, intelligent and loyal.

Visiting the Kims, Jude finds Maggie’s mother too peaceful for a woman whose daughter died the day before. She seems too cold, not at all cut up.

Bit by bit, we learn more about Maggie, as also about Jude. We come to know of Jude’s relationship with her mother. My mother criticizes and reverses with economic speed. Or My mother sighs like she’s just finished the dishes and I’m piling more into the sink.

We also come to know that while Jude considered Maggie her best friend and told her all her secrets, Maggie didn’t leave all her secrets in Jude’s care. Instead, she distributed them equally among her other friends, Dane and Tallulah, who are going steady and later break up; hippie couple Hank and Eppie; Edina Rodriguez, Maggie’s other BFF; Luke Liu, in love with Maggie since first grade, a guy who spends his time stalking Maggie and photographing her surreptitiously, and Joey, the guy who found Maggie lying face up in the pool, a guy who longs for a deeper relationship with Jude but is always thwarted by her.

Anxious to prove that Maggie’s death was not a suicide, Jude asks all kinds of uncomfortable questions of the other friends, gathered together at an informal wake. Her questions and comments expose the cracks within their relationships. As Jude says, Maggie Kim was the sun in our universe. We all circled her…And now that she’s gone, we’re shifting orbits. Colliding…or drifting apart.

The search throws up many unpleasant secrets along the way and the realization that someone can be your best friend in the world, but you’re not necessarily theirs. As she looks for her best friend’s killer, she finds the courage to face her own demons. Jude herself has some secrets which stand between her and a fuller commitment with Joey.

The sexual politics of the youngsters, with promiscuity and stalking, is thrown into the mix for good measure. The lazy life of a rich student jumps out at you, the knowingness but also the cluelessness. It gets darker with child sex abuse and the ensuing trauma.

The descriptions evoke the California of my imagination, fuelled by what Hollywood has taught me to believe. But they also speak of a California, as seen through the eyes of a local, not a tourist. The California setting is unconsciously important because as Jude says, Temblors happen here all the time. There’s just no way of knowing if it’s an aftershock from some long-ago event, or a precursor of things to come.

Bonus points for the amazing cover, which shows the body of Maggie, as seen from the bottom of the swimming pool, and the view of the palm trees against the blue sky.

As a character, Jude is likeable, but she can also be very rude and obnoxious. While we admire her for the persistence with which she seeks justice for her dead friend, we are equally frustrated by her unwillingness to accept and return Joey’s affections, for her insistence on treating him as a sidekick.

Joey is warm, friendly and loyal. He calls Jude out for her rudeness but stands by her side through it all.

Jude’s observations are smart. About the trees lining Maggie’s street, she says, No fruit, no flowers, and not a lick of shade. They’re wealthy trees – arrogant and useless.

The story is written in the first person point of view, in the present tense. But the flashbacks, about Maggie and Jude, are in the past tense. The flashbacks, views of Jude’s memories, are the only place where we see Maggie. Jude recalls, Big girls don’t cry, Maggie used to say. They get even. And so it seems that she is trying her best to get even with the world for Maggie’s sake. She regrets not being around when Maggie died, believing, that like Superman who flew backward around the earth to resurrect Lois Lane, she would have been able to prevent Maggie’s death if she had been around.

For a story about Pasadena and young people, many of them rich and entitled, this one ran much deeper than it appeared to on the surface.

I only wished that Jude had grabbed the chance of redemption for herself. She deserved some happiness, and Joey even more so.

A light read that still runs pretty deep.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

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