Friday, June 29, 2012

Come See About Me by CK Kelly Martin

It's a freak accident that kills 19-now-20-year-old Leah's boyfriend Bastien and she is saddled with grief that is much heavier than what she thinks she can handle. She and Bastien had their lives ahead of them: they were living together in an apartment in Toronto, they'd made plans to get a dog in the future, and they'd settle into great jobs and living the life both of them had dreamed of. But now with the accident and Bastien ripped from her life, Leah's left to pick up the pieces of this future and put them together in a new way. For herself.

The thing is, it is not easy. Leah's family lives on the other side of the country, and she does not want to move back. She wants to stay where she is because it is where she was happy. But she cannot be happy in her apartment any longer knowing that Bastien isn't there. She can't make it through school any longer and drops out. Her job at the museum is also just a little too much to take, so she quits showing up and now, she lacks an income to even pay for her apartment. Time is ticking for her to figure something out.

As luck would have it, Bastien's aunt has a place in suburban Oakville, and she offers Leah the chance to live there without having to pay rent -- she only spends a few weeks a year there to check up on her business anyway, so Leah would have the place to herself. Leah takes the place. It's not easier, though, as she continues working through the loss and the rattling of what looked like the perfect future. Then she meets Liam. Runs into him quite literally and on more than one occasion. So when Leah finally gets the nerve to talk to Liam and ends up spilling her guts, she starts to realize how different it feels to open up. As she begins opening up to him physically and emotionally, Leah grapples with how she can move forward without Bastien without forgetting who he was to her and without moving on.

CK Kelly Martin's Come See About Me is an adult novel, and because of a marketing issue, it was hard for this book to find a traditional publisher. So Martin published it herself. While I tend to avoid books that are self-published, Martin's track record for writing strong contemporary stories appealed to me, and knowing how raw and powerful her YA titles are, I was incredibly curious how she could infuse a book for the adult audience with that power. This book was not disappointing in the least, and if anything, it proved Martin has the ability to write across audiences. And let me say this much, too: she can write a sexy story. Come See About Me is a title that's going to stick with me for a long time, and it's one I can see myself revisiting.

Leah is a complex and pained character who is struggling not only with overwhelming grief and loss, but she's at a time in her life that is already so confusing. She's on the path she's been led to believe is the right one -- she's living in the big cosmopolitan city of Toronto, and she's going to school full-time while balancing a part-time job. But when Bastien dies, Leah finds herself wondering whether or not this is truly what she wants to be doing. It's not that she was unhappy with her future plans when Bastien was a part of them, but rather, losing him forces Leah to reassess her own life. She comes to the realization that doing so many of these things simply didn't fulfill her. While she's letting school and her job go, of course she falls into a deeper stage of grief, but through this, she also begins to learn a lot about who she is and what matters to her. It's not grades or a full-time career. It's finding peace in a way that's not achieved through racking up "adult points." That is, her happiness and fulfillment aren't going to be found through finishing college or finding a full-time career. At least not at this point. What she needs to be happy are meaningful relationships. This is part of why her move from the city into the suburbs is huge. It's the first step in Leah reclaiming control of her own life.

Enter Liam. From the start, he cares about Leah, but the problem is that she's not entirely ready to let herself become involved in another relationship. Especially one that could become romantic. But without thinking too much one night, Leah has the overwhelming urge to be sexual with Liam. She lets go of the tight control she's held, particularly over that physical piece of her relationship with Bastien, and allows herself to give into the moment. And it is sexy. In the moment, at least -- when Leah pulls herself from the situation later and realizes what she allowed herself to do, regret and remorse consume her. It's not just emotional either; it's manifested physically. What scares her about this is that for the first time since Bastien's death, Leah allowed herself to give into sheer desire. For the first time in a long time, she wasn't grieving or analyzing her world. It's in those moments after, though, where things become painful. Leah's scared to death of what she's allowed herself to do because she feels like she's let down Bastien. As readers, we feel the regret she experiences, but at the same time, we want Leah to allow herself the chance to give into her desires, especially with a guy like Liam who is so caring and concerned about her.

Let me not get ahead here, though: Liam is far from perfect. He's here in Oakville because he, too, is trying to rebuild a life that was left in tatters. He's from overseas and working on a local theatrical production. After a very public infidelity scandal, he knew he needed to get away and it's here he has found a safe place. It's here he hopes to rebuild his image. I wouldn't say he hides this all from Leah, but he's not entirely open about it, and part of the reason is this: Leah isn't necessarily interested in hearing about it. At least at first. Liam can sense that from her and he allows her to take what she needs from him emotionally and physically. He offers himself to her in a way she needs. In doing such, well, what his past is really doesn't matter.

The more time Leah and Liam spend together, the more intimate they become. And it's intimacy this time, not simply raw desire. Martin has a knack for writing great sensual scenes in her YA novels, and given her platform with an adult novel, she's able to amplify this. No doubt, this book is sexy; it treads a very fine line of incredibly tender and slightly dirty. What makes it work so well, though, is that these intimate scenes are powerful for Leah -- they open her up in the way she needs to be opened up. She allows herself incredible vulnerability. We feel it with her, and these moments are powerfully mature in a way that goes well beyond how they're played out physically. Over the course of her time with Liam, Leah begins to understand it's okay to give into her feelings, into her own desires, and she's allowed to let herself feel good. That that would be what Bastien would want for her. Leah, though, continues to set up strict boundaries in her relationship with Liam: she wants this to be nothing but physical. She wants no emotional investment in what they're doing. To her, that would be hurting -- almost shaming -- what she had with Bastien.

Of course, that cannot happen. We know this. As much as Leah pushes away from the emotional side of her relationship with Liam, she simply can't. It's when Leah confronts Liam's past head on where she discovers that her emotions are much more tied up in this relationship than she expected. She realizes how vulnerable she really is. It's painful to watch her fall apart, particularly because as readers, we are watching Leah get stronger and find herself, even if she herself isn't acknowledging it. When Leah approaches Liam about his past, she finally comes to realize that what she's experiencing isn't loss or hurt. It's acceptance: of herself, of Liam. Of Bastien's death. And just when it looks like everything will be gone, well, Leah will really get a surprise she wasn't expecting.

One of my favorite threads throughout the story is a small one, but it's one I think summarizes the entire journey Leah experiences. Bastien was passionate about creating a comic book called "Johnny Yang" -- he was a bit of a superhero. Unfortunately, when Bastien died, he hadn't completed the story. Leah found it important, though, to reconnect with this comic. She wants to finish it, if for no other reason than for Bastien's dream to become a reality. It's about a third of the way through the book when Leah finds a real turning point in this goal, where she realizes that "Maybe what [Johnny Yang] needs is another world to tempt him." More importantly -- and sure, this is minor spoiler territory -- Leah doesn't finish the story over the course of the book. It's a continuing process, rather than something that's opened and closed. But as readers we know that the process of creation and the process of exploring new worlds with Johnny Yang will help Leah move forward in the future.

Come See About Me is about how life is about stepping forward, even when there are a million things that can hold you back. It's as much about grief and loss as it is about love and acceptance. Martin strips her characters down to their barest pieces and allows readers to watch as these characters struggle to find themselves. Her writing is strong and engaging. While at times I found myself becoming a little wearisome of the focus on the mundane, these bits of routine were important to the story -- they were ultimately what helped ground Leah into her world. It was important when she went to the store to get food for her pet and when she went for a walk. These were aspects of Leah learning how to go through with being Leah. There's a very fragile balance of being on your own for the first time and learning that you aren't immune to awful things happening in your life. That you're not as shielded from pain as you think you are.

It's that last part that will make this book appealing to both older teens who are mature enough to handle the intimacy aspect, and it's this very last part that will make this book appealing to adults, as well. Come See About Me avoids so much of what I find challenging about adult fiction in that it doesn't aim to incorporate every item on the checklist of adulthood. Leah is imperfect, as is Liam, and neither of them are interested in chasing those items that make adults "adults" in our society. Rather than forcing these characters to conform to an ideal, they're allowed to bend and mold to what they want their own ideals to be. And for me, that's the truth of what adulthood is. It's not about settling into a career, into a mortgage, into children and marriage, into saving for retirement and making sure your resume is pristine. It's about figuring out what matters to you as an individual and making that enrich your life. In my mind, this isn't a "new adult" novel (a label I really dislike). It's an adult novel. I think the more we try to segment books, the more we allow ourselves to think of books as one sort of thing or another -- just like I did in suggesting why I don't like adult books. Martin's book is hugely refreshing, and I think more books like this on the market is a good thing. It's not entirely new, either: Tom Wolfe did it with I Am Charlotte Simmons, Curtis Sittenfeld did it with Prep, and Megan McCafferty did it with her Jessica Darling series, among others.

Although I could not relate to Leah much myself, I found her reminiscent of so many people I know, and I can see readers easily relating to her.  I appreciate, too, how Martin also made this book incredible diverse without every writing a "diverse" novel. Rather, we know Bastien wasn't a white character because from the start, Leah says he was not white. But she doesn't dwell on this. It's a fact we learn and she moves forward. Likewise, Leah's friends are not white, and we get that via their names and their cultural experiences that are simply incorporated into the narrative without fuss. Oakville is a suburb of a major metropolitan area, and it's through this diversity that it comes alive. 

I'm not one to usually write down memorable quotes from books, but there's one that stuck with me as I was reading this one that summarizes not only the whole of the story but of the power of Liam's relationship with Leah and Leah's relationship with Bastien (and, of course, Liam): "Bending instead of breaking. That's probably always a better option if you can take it."

Come See About Me is available now in all formats, and it can be purchased digitally at Amazon or Smashwords. It is also available in print via Amazon. This book suffers none of the trappings of many self-published books, so do not worry about any editing issues. Martin's book is the real deal and will appeal to those who like contemporary fiction, strong characters, emotionally powerful stories, and who enjoy their sex steamy. If you want more or want to check out a sizable sample from the book, Martin's developed a website exclusively for this book right here.

Finished copy received from the author for review.

3 comments:

  1. Gorgeous review, Kelly. As you know, I loved the hell out of this book. It's absolutely special and has lingered with me. As much as I like Martin's YAs, I'd love to read more adult fiction from her, we need more books like this.

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  2. This is such a great and spot-on review. You've said everything I felt about this book, but so much more succinctly than I cam able to do so :)

    x Nomes

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    1. That this is succinct is a great compliment ;) But I am so glad other people are reading and getting as much from this gorgeous book as I did!

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