Ballads of Suburbia
It’s strange to find yourself feeling nostalgic about a time that you absolutely hated. I’m obviously not alone when I say that middle and high school weren’t the best times of my life; while I had friends and family that I cared about a lot and vice versa, everything else often seemed like a total mess. Looking back on it with a few years distance, I can say that I blew things out of proportion, overreacted, was irrational in my words and decisions. In short, I was your stereotypical teenage girl.
Stephanie Kuehnert’s second novel, Ballads of Suburbia, brought me right back to those heady, mid-90s days of endless troubles and tears. Kara has left her Illinois home for college in California, and comes back in Christmas 1999, wary about facing her demons, but knowing she has to. We get Kara’s story—one of teenage love, drugs, and intense pain—through flashbacks, as she remembers her past while visiting for the first time. There are some absolutely heartbreaking scenes, as Kara and her friends deal with hard drug use, depressive and suicidal thoughts, and domestic abuse: things we know teenagers deal with, but is rarely written as bluntly as in Kuehnert’s book.
The device that ties the book together is the titular collection of ballads (in the traditional sense, Kara is sure to assert, of a story-song) that Kara and her friends put together to exorcise their demons. Every main character in the novel writes their ballad, the story of something in their lives that made them who they are, for better or for worse, in a notebook. That Kara eventually is able to take the stories and make something wonderful out of them is a testament to the strength of the character, and the redemptive power of writing itself.
Kuehnert’s characters reside in Oak Park, a northern Chicago suburb, and an area that is familiar to Kuehnert, as she lives in a Chicago suburb and received her MFA from Columbia College. The familiarity and seemingly love/hate relationship with the area are obvious in the novel, as the setting is wonderfully described, from the park where Kara and her friends go to smoke and skate, to grungy basement parties, to the unbearable places Kara and her friends call home. The mid-90s setting and allusions to grunge and punk music endeared themselves to me, and produced that intense sense of nostalgia, especially when Kuehnert describes driving around with the music as loud as possible, screaming along to your favorite songs.
Although I never had quite the amount of trouble that Kara and her friends did, there is still a thread that binds us together, and made me appreciate the novel as both a reminder and a cautionary tale. Please note: the novel features somewhat graphic descriptions of drug use and self-mutilation that some might find triggering.