"My mom died on one of the few sunny days we had last August," 16-year-old Gwen Perez says at the beginning of Andrea Koenig's second novel...
“My mom died on one of the few sunny days we had last August,” 16-year-old Gwen Perez says at the beginning of Andrea Koenig’s second novel, “Hello Life” (Soho, 272 pp., $24). The story takes place in the imaginary mill town of Columbia, on the Washington side of the Columbia River near Cathlamet.
Driving home after two hair appointments she had scheduled as house calls, Gwen’s mother “sped into a couple of good-sized chunks of cliff that weren’t there … a few hours before. Her boyfriend’s Corvette flipped and rolled. She never saw the point of a seatbelt and the cops said her pretty, 37-year-old body was thrown from hell to breakfast down the narrow highway.”
Andrea Koenig will read from “Hello Life,” 7 p.m. Thursday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
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Gwen is a tough-talking kid who grew up too quickly. The hard-boiled dialogue and narrative voice Koenig crafted for her is often defensive, now and then surprisingly jaded, at times unconvincingly mature. Gwen’s father, Gustavo Perez, left soon after her birth. As the daughter of a single mother, and half Hispanic in an otherwise thoroughly white town, her childhood has been anything but easy.
Her mother’s landlady, Leslie Hundy, packs Gwen off to live with Nona Parker. Mrs. Parker is “Miz” Hundy’s sister, a divorcee who takes in children since she can’t have any of her own. The afternoon Gwen moves, she has only two boxes of jeans and shirts, a cat, her mother’s Martin guitar, some basic beautician’s skills and a talent for singing. Before that first day in a new home ends, Lila Abernathy, “Leukemia Girl,” also a junior at Columbia High School as well as Mrs. Parker’s other current foster child, has tossed Gwen’s cat outside. Frightened, he runs away, triggering the girls’ contentious relationship.
The story resembles Koenig’s well-received debut novel, “Thumbelina,” in which a 14-year-old girl — like Gwen, another blonde with glasses — is orphaned when her unmarried mother drives into a pond near their house in Tacoma. A stormy friendship develops between two girls who meet, then run away from their foster home. In both books, Koenig explores the same rich themes of love, jealousy, friendship and the resilience of youth. In the first novel, both girls are pregnant; in the new one, Lila battles cancer while Gwen begins having morning sickness, and the book once again follows the course of a pregnancy.
Both novels feature protagonists who disregard adults’ rules and refuse to have an abortion, but while there’s no fairy-tale ending for Thumbelina, things improve for Gwen.
Because of its focus on high-school life, popularity cliques, privileged rich brats versus outcast poor kids and teen romance, this novel seems geared more toward young-adult readers.
Some aspects of “Hello Life” are a bit of a stretch. For example, the father of Gwen’s child turns out to be Edgar Fuentes, her long-absent father’s 40-something, beer-drinking, pot-smoking friend, who lives in his van near the gas station where he works. For the first 80 pages or so, Gwen gives him nothing but the cold shoulder, so their affair seems odd. He is undeveloped as a character, and narrative hints that Gwen took up with him to punish her mother or to find a surrogate father or to get attention are sketchy.
Columbia is a convincingly out-of-date small town. Gwen smokes; most of the adults provide her cigarettes. At 16, she begins singing in Miz Hundy’s tavern, and no one is particularly worried about minors in a bar. Unlicensed, she works at Mrs. Parker’s beauty salon.
Although Koenig’s authority with the details of Gwen’s job at Miz Hundy’s stables are shaky (horses don’t have “front hocks,” for instance; they have knees), horses and the people who love them provide the unconditional affection Gwen so needs. Many times, she connects to animals warmly and openly, revealing the woman and parent who might develop beyond the ending of this book. That Lila and Gwen can fight so convincingly, yet come to respect each other, is another eloquent aspect of this uneven but heartfelt story.