Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me by Gae Polisner

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book. It will be published April 7, 2020, by St. Martin's Press.

Characters are what make a book: authentic characters you believe in, characters you care for, characters you worry and cry over. If, like me, you are an older reader, characters you want to take home and look after.

JL Markham is one of these.

Here is the Goodreads' blurb about this book: 

Fifteen-year-old JL Markham's life used to be filled with carnival nights and hot summer days spent giggling with her forever best friend Aubrey about their families and boys. Together, they were unstoppable. But they aren't the friends they once were.

With JL's father gone on long term business, and her mother suffering from dissociative disorder, JL takes solace in the in the tropical butterflies she raises, and in her new, older boyfriend, Max Gordon. Max may be rough on the outside, but he has the soul of a poet (something Aubrey will never understand). Only, Max is about to graduate, and he's going to hit the road - with or without JL.

JL can't bear being left behind again. But what if devoting herself to Max not only means betraying her parents, but permanently losing the love of her best friend? What becomes of loyalty, when no one is loyal to you?

This beautifully written novel addresses numerous issues: friendship found and lost, first love, teen sex, abandonment, and mental illness. There’s betrayal and poisonous gossip.

JL’s mother and father have always been free spirited. When her father sells his business, he signs an agreement to support the company during the transition. They are suddenly wealthy, but while he is away for longer and longer periods of time, JL’s mother spirals into mental illness. There is no one to help out. Even her grandmother asserts that everything is fine. It’s not.

Aside from her absent father, two young men play significant roles in her life. Neither of them come across as winners since they both take advantage of her. The only difference between them is that one of them was raised in a prestigious family and the other by an abusive, alcoholic father. I wouldn’t want a daughter of mine involved with either of them and would be ashamed to have raised young men of their ilk.

Told from JL’s perspective, the story alternates between present tense and scenes from the past. It’s written as a letter to her former best friend, Aubrey. It takes a while to figure out how their relationship unravelled, and like most things in life, it’s complicated, but stems from an incident with Ethan, Aubrey’s older brother, who JL had a crush on. 

JL’s first real love is Max Gordon. He is a stereotypical bad boy with a lousy reputation, but JL loves the romantic, kind soul she sees inside him. I liked that this book dealt with sexuality, but to be honest, was uncomfortable by the fact that Max is nineteen to JL’s fifteen. While he might assert that he is prepared to wait for her to be ready for sex, Max pushes the boundaries regularly. I might have forgiven him for this except for the final incident. I can’t help but wonder, If everything else in her life had been more stable, would JL have been so susceptible?

I’ve been pondering the Jack Kerouac connection here and am not sure I get it. Is Jack Kerouac to JL’s grandmother and mother what Max Gordon is to JL? The problem is that whereas Grandma had supportive parents to keep her grounded and safe, JL is foundering with no one except Max to catch her. And he can’t even catch himself.

I was fascinated by JL raising butterflies. I especially appreciated the connection between her and their seeming fragility. In the end, just as she manages to save one of them, she realizes her own strength and manages to rescue herself. Whether or not her friendship with Aubrey can be salvaged, is another thing. 

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