By Beth Kephart
Available now from Philomel (Penguin)
Read my reviews of UNDERCOVER and DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS as well as my interview of Beth and her interview of me
SMALL DAMAGES is set in Seville, Spain in 1995. The older characters remember living under the rule of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who is still dead. The eighties brought about a huge change in Spanish culture: the death of conservative Franco and new tourism from the rest of Europe brought new lifestyles, including looser sexual mores and greater rights for women to Spain. But Spain didn't entirely assimilate.
SMALL DAMAGES made me feel like I was in Seville, seeing and smelling the same things as Kenzie. There's descriptions of the food, the clothes, the music, and the dancing. The dialogue gives a sense of the language barrier between Kenzie and her hosts. She sometimes tries her hand at Spanish and others attempt English, but the words are rarely perfect.
Kenzie has been sent to Spain because she's pregnant. She refused to terminate the pregnancy as her mother and boyfriend wanted. The compromise is to live with one of her mother's old friends' friend, Miguel, at his bull ranch Los Nietos and give up the baby to another couple, Javier and Adair. At Los Nietos she works in the kitchen with Estela and becomes fascinated with ranch hand Esteban, who both have their own stories.
Kenzie is uneasy throughout most of her stay at Los Nietos. She finds beauty in the people and the place, but she's unsure about what she's doing and not comfortable with the spoiled Adair. She's struggling to find her way. Then she begins to find it as she and the people around her open up to each other. I felt as adrift as Kenzie was at the beginning while reading SMALL DAMAGES. I appreciated Beth Kephart's talent, but couldn't connect to the story.
I am a huge fan of Kephart's writing. Her prose is as beautiful and absorbing as ever. But I felt like I was at a popular museum exhibit while reading SMALL DAMAGES, like I was on tiptoe so that I could see over people's shoulders and catch a glimpse of a masterpiece ten feet away before I was swept away with the crowd to marvel at the corner of the next work on the wall.
I felt like a failure reading SMALL DAMAGES. If Kephart is one of my favorite authors, then why did I not love this book? And if I didn't love it, why couldn't I articulate what was wrong? But I'm not a failure. There is nothing wrong with appreciating a book but acknowledging that it's not for you. SMALL DAMAGES is full of achingly raw emotions presented with polished, poetic prose. There will be someone at the exhibit who sees a ray of light captured just so and is never the same again.