I *may* have recently joined a YA book club that is totally out of my league. I mean, I did join the book club. Now, I just need to keep going and not 100% embarrass myself. This week, we got together to discuss The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. It’s not a typical YA read, at least not for me. Set in 1970s Alaska, the book follows four alternating teenage narrators. Stealing from the back cover: Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck strikes. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance, with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger. Four very different lives are about to become entangled.
This book was brief and beautifully written. In someways, I think the author was a better writer than storyteller. The unique setting of Alaska totally came alive with out of this world sensory details. The visuals. The cold temperature. Most of all the smells. I think if the book had been a bit longer, there might have been more time to connect with each narrator – but that would also have been a very different book. As it stands, I felt the most connected to Ruth with Alyce as a close second, but I wonder if that’s because their stories followed more conventional young adult plot lines.
At book club, my one timid contribution to the conversation was to say that this felt a little more like literary fiction than YA. I think that is probably because of the focus on description over plot and maybe also because of the subdued emotions in the story. All four of the teenagers are going through gut-wrenching emotional situations, but somehow the book still feels quiet and in control. I liked this! It just felt a little strange to me.
Reading the ending of this book felt like taking a master class in craft. I don’t want to give anything away (and I won’t!) but I love how the structure of the novel seemed to mimic the characters’ journeys moving from isolation to connection and community.
How much I enjoyed this book might not be coming through enough in this review. But I did. I really did. It felt like a wonderful change in pace from what I normally read. I also don’t know very much about Alaska, except for the Tina Fey impressions of Sarah Palin, and so this made for wonderful reading.