November 18, 2014

The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing

by C. K. Kelly Martin
Dancing Cat Books
256 pp.
Ages 13+
September, 2014

The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing, as a title, suggests the lightness of song and joy. But those moments are few and far between in the actual story. That's because The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing is a story of secrets, confusion, anger, and grief, with only a few bars of a sweet song that may be heard in the background, leaving you hoping the song will make its way to the forefront and be sung loud and clear and passionately.

When Serena LeBlanc's older brother, Devin, trades a life of Mensa brilliance at university for drugs and life on the street, she could never have foreseen the impact it would have on her and her family.  Having endured Devin's plunge into drugs, theft and erratic behaviour, culminating with his disappearance, Serena's parents seem to have disassociated themselves from any life without Devin.  Mom is constantly on eBay purchasing new Swarovski figurines and Dad just seems to go through the motions of life. Her eldest brother Morgan, a celebrity VJ at MuchMusic, lives with his partner Jimmy in Toronto, but still tries to offer the support they all need to remain an intact family.  Serena, not yet sixteen, loses almost thirty pounds and begins dating Jacob Westermark, leaving behind her old friendships, and enjoying a new popularity.

But recognizing an incident at a party as an attempt at sexual exploitation, Serena swears off Jacob and guys in general, finding new friends in girls Nicole and Genevieve who have been humiliated by their boyfriends too.  Bonding with the girls over their disappointment in boys provides Serena some refuge from her parents' detachment, as does a part-time job as a cashier at Total Drug Mart.  But two events change everything for Serena.

A young man who regularly drops into Total Drug Mart begins to show an interest in Serena.  But Serena is torn between being loyal to her friends and their boyfriend-less status and becoming involved with a really nice guy, Gage Cochrane.  Worse still, Serena doesn't know how to be herself around Gage.  She still sees herself as the chubby girl who would need to throw herself at a guy to keep him interested.  Gage, on the other hand, seems fairly well-adjusted and is not impressed with Serena's sexual antics.

Then, while attending one of Jimmy's art shows in Toronto, Serena spots Devin on the street.  But when he flees from her, catching a streetcar, Serena is left with more questions about who her brother has become and whether he wants to come home ever.

It's painful to read Serena's attempts to understand and find her brother, especially as she examines her relationship with him and how she sees herself.
...I can see with absolute clarity how the tangled mess of my former blubber, personal insecurities, and stupid need for some kind of male appraisal have shaped me into a person I don't want to be. (pg. 114) 
As she did in My Beating Teenage Heart, Yesterday and Tomorrow, C. K. Kelly Martin expertly weaves a story based on the typical confusion of the teen years but with an atypical, devastating situation that impacts that confusion all the more.  In The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing, she imbues the story with a grittiness and harshness about young relationships, especially in the shadow of social media exploitation, and a young man's severance from his family, and creates a series of scenarios you hope you'll never have to experience.  You won't necessarily like Serena (or at least I didn't, at the beginning) but you'll understand how she has become the person she has.  Her life is messy but it's not until she takes some responsibility for that mess and faces that she can't force things to turn out the way she wants that life begins to feel better.  She can't make Devin come home.  She can't make her parents change.  She can't make Gage act like she thinks he should.  Serena cannot make her life all sweet and lovely but she can control herself and her choices and that makes things all the sweeter.  C. K. Kelly Martin gets that very right and, without making Serena's life a Broadway musical, she allows her to find a song that is sure to become sweeter. 

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