Book Review: Small Damages by Beth Kephart

24 Aug

Book cover for Small Damages by Beth Kephart

Title: Small Damages

Author: Beth Kephart

Genre: Contemporary YA

Publisher: Philomel

Release date: July 19, 2012

Amazon | Goodreads

Source: Bought it

Summary: It’s senior year, and while Kenzie should be looking forward to prom and starting college in the fall, she is mourning the loss of her father. She finds solace in the one person she trusts, her boyfriend, and she soon finds herself pregnant. Kenzie’s boyfriend and mother do not understand her determination to keep the baby. She is sent to southern Spain for the summer, where she will live out her pregnancy as a cook’s assistant on a bull ranch, and her baby will be adopted by a Spanish couple. 

Alone and resentful in a foreign country, Kenzie is at first sullen and difficult. She begins to open her eyes and her heart to the beauty that is all around her and inside of her.

Teen pregnancy and travel. In terms of drama and adventure, you can’t get much better than that. Perhaps, though, SMALL DAMAGES by Beth Kephart is heavier on the drama parts than on the travel parts, although the fact that this book is set in SPAIN–one of my favorite places–sets a great tone and provides a really incredible atmosphere. No, the real draw of SMALL DAMAGES is the story it tells of Kenzie, and how she spends the summer after her senior year of high school pregnant, sent off to Spain by her mother. It’s really the poignant story of how a young girl slowly becomes a mother.

So maybe you read that last line and are thinking of some Teen Mom kind of shenanigans. I can understand why, but SMALL DAMAGES is a very serious little book. Kenzie is dealing with lots of emotions, and they aren’t even hormone-related. See, she doesn’t get a long with her image-conscious mother at all, and in the aftermath of her father’s death, they are butting heads even more than usual. Kenzie was, no question, a daddy’s girl. Not in a spoiled way. In a way where it was always those two against her mother; they understood each other. For a little while, Kenzie finds solace in the arms of her bff/boyfriend, Kevin, but one night winds up getting a little TOO much solace, and she gets pregnant. Neither the boyfriend nor the mom are supportive AT ALL of Kenzie’s pretty brave decision to keep the baby, so her boyfriend basically deserts her to hang with their friends, and her mom ships her off to a friend’s ranch in Spain, where she has also arranged for a couple to get the baby once it is born. I told you. DRAMA, and FEELINGS.

There’s very little lightness going on in SMALL DAMAGES, but Beth Kephart manages to find some. The housekeeper at the ranch, Estela, is delightfully brusque and tough. I enjoyed her and Kenzie’s interactions very much because there are no pretensions between them. They are crabby together, and pissy, but they grow to care for each other in a grandmother/granddaughter kind of way. It was nice. And of course there’s the guy, Esteban. He’s UBER mysterious and quiet, almost so much so that he hardly seems to appear in the story. I wish that there was more meat on his relationship with Kenzie in SMALL DAMAGES, if only because he becomes important to her, slowly.

Really, there’s no question that the biggest, most important relationship in SMALL DAMAGES is between Kenzie and her baby. The whole book is written in the first person, but often she makes a point of addressing the baby directly, or the two of them together as “we.” I’m not a mother, but I can imagine that this private bond that a mother shares with her unborn baby is pretty special, and Kenzie is always aware of it, even as she is unsure of her future, and getting closer and closer to giving her child up. I LOVED SMALL DAMAGES for this. The language Beth Kephart uses to describe Kenzie’s life in these moments is really beautiful and touching, and it made me feel very protective and proud of Kenzie. Even when she was being emo and droopy and self-pitying. She has good instincts.

Of course, part of the reason that SMALL DAMAGES is so different and striking is the setting. Friends, if you ever get the chance to visit Spain, don’t be a ninny and say “no.” It’s a gorgeous place, and the people are so much like the characters in this book. They are open and warm and full of emotions. You can tell that Beth Kephart has spent lots of time in Spain because you can feel all of those things as you read. The liveliness and passion, as well as the harsher, quiet aspects of life on a bull ranch. There’s some great metaphors between Kenzie and her baby and Miguel, the ranch owner, and his bulls that he raises for bullfights. Bottom line: I don’t think SMALL DAMAGES would be anywhere near as good as it is without three things: Kenzie, the writing, and Spain. It’s a truly great combo.

Beth Kephart has written a really special story that paints a very different picture of teenage pregnancy than the ones we see in the media all the time, and I’m thankful for it. SMALL DAMAGES doesn’t pull any punches about how hard it is to be young and on the verge of motherhood. The things you sacrifice, the changes you undergo, the feelings of responsibility for another life. It’s heavy stuff, written wonderfully. There are things about SMALL DAMAGES that I wish had MORE to them–Esteban, as well as a few things near the end. But I often find myself thinking about what happened to Kenzie and her baby after the end of SMALL DAMAGES, and I think that’s always a good sign. This is a truly lovely book that will leave its print on you.

Favorite quotes

“The past isn’t buried, not yet. The present is now, and there are consequences. I’m either hurting other people or I’m hurting myself, I’m either taking away our future or my own, I’m either denying Adair or I’m defying my mother, hating Kevin or loving Kevin, loving Esteban or leaving Esteban, but still: I have to take my chances. Our chances. Because you are mine. You always will be.”

“Maybe all that matters is that they love each other, still, the way people who have known each other will always love each other. Somewhere in Luis’s heart, Estela is. Somewhere, in Kevin’s, I am. There’s peace in not wanting what can’t be had. There’s peace in not regretting what was.”

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5 Responses to “Book Review: Small Damages by Beth Kephart”

  1. sagustocox August 24, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    I just loved the serious nature of this book and Esteban is mysterious and I liked that. It reminded me of William in Dangerous Neighbors and the mystery about him. Maybe Beth could revisit Esteban as she has revisited William in an upcoming novel.

  2. Beth Kephart August 24, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    this is pretty amazingly beautiful. thank you for being such a kind reader, and such a thoughtful writer.

  3. Alexa Loves Books (@alexalovesbooks) August 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    I really love the way you wrote about this book. I have yet to read it, but I do look forward to the day I do.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top Ten Tuesday (44) « Tripping Over Books - September 11, 2012

    […] What a great book about first love. You know, the kind that is powerful and devastating and that takes you until awhile after it’s finished to see clearly. But there are other great thinking points in this book, the biggest of which is found in the person of Tik Tok, a man who dresses like a woman–more of a truth about who he is than a choice–who bears the worst of a wandering Englishman’s religion-based views of right and wrong. Small Damages by Beth Kephart […]

  2. Top Ten Tuesday (55) « - December 11, 2012

    […] had a few Beth Kephart books on my TBR for awhile, but it was her most recent book, SMALL DAMAGES, that really got me excited about her work. I was really moved by SMALL DAMAGES: the setting […]

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