“Dreamlike” is one word for Beth Kephart’s latest novel, Small Damages, in which an American teenager is exiled to Spain after she gets pregnant. Her percolating story emerges through Kephart’s lilting prose in that same hazy way you’d meander through the narrow white streets of Seville in the noontime sun or confront the hot, dry winds, redolent of foreign smells and flavors, on a ranch in the Spanish countryside. The reader is lost and found and lost and found again.
Following in a tradition of teenage-novel heroines, 18-year-old Kenzie is determined to have her baby, a decision neither her socially ambitious mother nor her Yale-bound boyfriend can accept. And the world surrounding Kenzie — who is meant to give the baby up for adoption in Spain, then return home as if nothing has happened — bears an air of unreality. This isn’t to say Kephart doesn’t paint it beautifully; it’s just that everything around and even within Kenzie is shifting and unfamiliar. She cannot simply wake up and return to “normal.” Normal has changed irrevocably.
During my adolescence, young adult literature about sexually active teenagers tended to feature Important Moral Lessons. These were tales of teenagers falling in with bad crowds; of peer pressure; of botched abortions and the botched lives that followed. Writing for young people about sex and pregnancy seemed intended, with few exceptions, to remind us that there were terrifying and unwanted consequences to our actions, that a choice to have unprotected sex — really, any sex at all — could change a girl’s life forever, and not for the better.
Kephart’s take is different.
Causes Beth Kephart Supports
PumpAid St. Christopher's Foundation for Children National Book Foundation's BookUpNYC Dancing Classrooms