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Pregnant girl in strange land

"Small Damages," set in a vivid Spain, is about love and choices, passions and regrets.

Small Damages

By Beth Kephart

Philomel. 304 pp. $17.99

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

In our modern world, where so much experience is diluted and mediated through digital technologies, Beth Kephart's novel, replete with sights and smells and sounds filtered through the eyes of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, seems compellingly immediate - and as far away as a country once visited and now living on the margins of memory.

For so much of this young adult novel, set in southern Spain in the mid-1990s, is about sensing.

As Kenzie experiences the sights and smells and voices of the foreign land where her mother has sent the high school student to bear her child after she gets pregnant, readers are drawn into this dislocating world, too.

Although Kenzie's turmoil gradually evolves into something more complicated, the foreignness of the landscape and idiosyncrasies of the characters are the backdrop for a story that in itself is about what happens when a young life is turned inside out.

Near the book's beginning, the heroine, newly arrived in southern Spain, narrates her impressions: "there are olive trees and orange trees and the smell of gasoline mixed up with citrus. Cyclists going by at a fast-whiz pace. Farmers in long-sleeved striped shirts. The sky has started turning silver, and then there are small pieces of blue, and soon the landscape is nothing but a blast-up of green and haze."

Not to mention the sight of bull carcasses hanging on the walls of Los Nietos, the ranch where Kenzie, a high school senior from the Philadelphia area, will work as a cook's assistant until her baby is born.

Or the songs and talismans of gypsies, who weave their way in and out of the narrative, forming a colorful counterpoint to the main story.

Mourning her father, who died the fall of her senior year, the 18-year-old was as close to her father she is as alienated from her mother, whom she scornfully describes as a "Main Line party planner."

When she chooses (contrary to the tactfully phrased suggestions of her boyfriend) to continue the pregnancy, her mother sends her to Spain as a cook's assistant. After the baby is born, her mother has arranged, through a friend, for a Spanish couple to adopt the child.

Kenzie is a talented high school senior (Shipley, in a nod to local readers), and on her way to the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University. Her boyfriend Kevin, the baby's father, is an equally gifted young man who is going to Yale University in the fall, and not interested in a detour.

The novel, set in southern Spain, is peopled with characters that could have walked, slightly altered, out of a Hemingway novel.

Miguel breeds bulls and lovingly tends them, until the day when he will send them off to the bullring.

"Bullfighting is poetry and mind, he tells me, and when his bulls die well, he does not feel the sadness; he feels the pride."

Estela, the dour, aging cook, has her own secrets dating to Spain under Franco - passions and regrets that will eventually prove key in spotlighting Kenzie's own decisions. Kephart describes Estela's cooking with such precision and intensity that parts of the book almost rise to the level of erotic gastronomy.

Then there is Esteban, a young man Kenzie's age, with a hypnotic way with birds and horses. Esteban has a spare manner of speech that means that when he speaks, it matters - an ongoing contrast with the friendly, popular, and ultimately unreliable Kevin. As Kenzie's relationships with the ranch inhabitants deepen, so does her connection to the life growing within her, whom she imagines, and addresses as "you."

" 'What are you going to do?' Kevin had asked me, making it my choice, and you mine, drawing the fine line between us," Kenzie recalls.

Ultimately, the book is about choices, some made in the heat of emotion, and few of them easy. "The present is now, and there are consequences," Kenzie thinks. "I'm either hurting other people or I'm hurting myself."

In a novel where most of the characters are drawn with empathy and care, the only one who really doesn't work is one who is physically absent - Kenzie's mother. Though the author shows flashes of sympathy for the widow's predicament, the character seems too bad to be true.

As seen through the eyes of her alienated child, Mom, who starts a business and seeks another mate while her late husband's body is barely cold, comes off as a cartoon: selfish, cold, judgmental, and generally a walking disaster.

But if the central premise of the novel is going to work, perhaps she has to be.

If you put the Main Line monster mom out of mind, Small Damages is an often sad, quietly hopeful, and always vivid book that underlines the veracity of a therapeutic aphorism - love is, indeed, always a decision.