10 May 2009

Review:: Deep in the Heart of High School by Veronica Goldbach

Know what a quinceañera is? A cumbia? A birthday money corsage? How do you give someone ojo?

Veronica Goldbach's charming debut novel Deep in the Heart of High School does what few YA books have done before: cash in on thousands of past and present band geeks by telling a story similar to theirs. This is the tale of three sistah girls brought together by band practice. Vanna has to move to San Antonio from Plano after her parents' divorce, much to her disillusionment. Olivia (pictured on the cover of the book) is a product of family loss and tries desperately to please her mother. Fatima is the resilient and rotund latina who occasionally works construction with her father and helps raise her little brothers. Though their origins are vastly varied, these amigas support each other through their romantic leanings and family issues.

Like most YA lit, this book touches on family dysfunction and death, but breaks free of the mold with themes of extreme shyness, cheating in school, and even immigration. T
his is a book where mexicanos are-- surprise!-- normal, hard-working people and don't have to prove their worth to anyone for any political purpose.

At times the book feels like it was written for another time. There is little mention of modern technology as it is currently being explored by teens. You'll find no iPods, YouTube, or IM chatting excerpts. In fact, for a book with a heavy theme of music, most of the bands mentioned are old school acts like the Beatles, Santo & Johnny, even Selena. However, this lends a timelessness to the story, almost as if all teens are destined to see oldies-but-goodies Sixteen Candles and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as touchstones of their youth.

And that's what makes this book precious. Instead of trying to capture idealized youth as experienced by so few (ahem, Gossip Girl), this is a book where the parents are actually around to be parents. Here, teens have crappy cars and don't have money to pay for movie tickets. The usual plot formulas don't always apply. After all, how often have you found a story where the chunky girl has the most exciting love life without having to be a slut?

Goldbach paints Texas as a place that really feels like a different country. San Antonio is forever steeped between the cultures of two nations-- the United States and Mexico-- and its presence is as crucial to the story as the girls' choices. San Antonio natives will connect with this story rather easily, given the ingeniously engineered landmark mentions-- ie, the Alamo, the White Rabbit, and China Latina. Still, you don't have to be Hispanic or San Antonian or lost to find this story highly enjoyable.

Rating::
8.21 of 9
Pacing::
Moderate. I mean, this isn't Bring It On or American Pie. Thankfully, there are no catty cheerleaders or band geek playas/dominatrixes. So if that kind of conflict moves the plot along for you, then you might find this slow.
Audience::
Tweens and up. This book is clean, clean, clean. A brief mention of drugs was handled in such a clever fashion that I doubt many parents would protest.
Like it? Try this!::
Well of course I'm going to say Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. But if you liked this book, you might very well enjoy this review by Alea.
Further Notes::
A friend who also read the book felt that he wanted to "smack" Fatima (playfully, of course) because he found her self-deprecating mentality really grating. When I pointed out that she was so real she felt like someone any of us might know, he kind of stared off into space and agreed. In a world of forced female heroines and neat perfection, it's so refreshing to be exposed to a real girl with real curves and a real brain.

Deep in the Heart of High School. By Veronica Goldbach. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009. 208 pages. $16.95