"Accept that the universe is an apparently random dance...
You'll love some of it and hate some of it." p. 225
This book piqued my interested when I stumbled upon a brief review in BookPage. The title's a mouth full, isn't it? Regardless, this story of a 15 year-old high school freshman girl who learns that her parents are divorcing and who confides all her thoughts to a statue is quite the sweet tale.
Angie is not your typical high school student. In fact, she’s one of the more confident teenage girls I’ve read. Her steady world is rocked when her mother decides out of the blue to divorce her very cool step dad. She doesn’t accept this easily and believes it’s just another phase her mom is going through. So Angie confides to St. Felix, a statue she found accidentally in the basement of her church. He's the ultimate listener (what statue isn't?) and she has revealed many of her personal secrets to him over the last few years.
One day, she discovers a homeless guy in the basement instead of the statue. After a dubious start, she becomes convinced that he’s St. Felix and continues to confide in him. Felix comes off as a soulful hippie who has obviously been through a lot in life (Vietnam War vet) and provides Angie with much-need perspectives about her parents’ relationship. Their interactions are very entertaining and he becomes an unusual mentor and protector.
As if she doesn’t have enough going on, at the beginning of the school year she befriends Jesse, a 19 year old who has returned home from Afghanistan to finish out his senior year. Jesse is an amputee who also experiences bouts of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The kids at school either look at him with awe or think he’s a freak. Angie and her best friend, the delightful and self-assured Lily, “adopt” Jesse.
Angie and Jesse eventually start secretly dating knowing that her family would disapprove of the age difference and the possibility that he may have some demons to fight. He comes to rely on her as his calming center and she genuinely feels that just the simple act of caring for him can help him heal. As she gets to know him she also sees how fragile he is. Her naivety initially leads her to think that she can help fix him. But after a very tense and ugly encounter where lines are crossed, Angie reluctantly realizes that she’s ill-equipped to handle Jesse's distress.
Angie’s struggles with the relationships around her are at times lighthearted and there were even moments that were laugh-out-loud funny for me. She’s already a smart girl to begin with but her growing maturity is endearing. She does quip at one point, “It is entirely possible that I am not at the center of the universe.” She questions the ramifications of war and the effects on the people who go and fight in the name of God. But don’t worry - the book doesn’t become a platform for pro or anti-war dialog even though she has those conversations with her family and Jesse.
Then there are also those serious moments when she acknowledges that there is no quick fix to people’s troubles especially when you can’t begin to comprehend the circumstances. “You have to let people be who they are, even when they’re damaged,” says Lily’s psychologist mother.
What We Keep is a smartly written book. Cockrell’s humor diffuses some of the more confusing moments. She also does an amazing job of including Angie’s Hispanic and Jewish heritages to show how Angie draws her strengths from them. And because of the supportive and inviting family that she has created for Angie, it’s easy to believe how she can so easily come to have compassion towards Felix and Jesse.
I can see myself reading this book again at some point and I've already blabbed about it to anyone who'll listen. So get a delicious beverage, find a quiet corner for yourself, get cozy and enjoy.