C.K. Kelly Martin is one of my favorite “sleeper” young adult authors.
It boggles my mind that her work is not more widely known. The Lighter Side of Life and Death is an outstanding example of authentic, engaging teen male point of view, while One Lonely Degree is a heartwrenching story of friendship. (I haven’t read I Know It’s Over, as it deals with teen pregnancy and I usually avoid that theme, but many folks have told me it’s excellent as well.)
My Beating Teenage Heart was unexpected.
The description was vague, so I was unsure what I was getting myself into, but it was a departure from the other Martin books I’ve read. Her previous novels spend quite a bit of time in the characters’ heads, but they’re also characterized by smart, compelling dialog. My Beating Teenage Heart, however, exists almost exclusively in the minds of the characters, and there’s very little dialog at all. Told in alternating first-person point of views, both of the narrators are unreliable. Breckon is a grief-stricken teen boy suffering from overwhelming feelings of responsibility for his younger sister’s recent death. Ashlyn, on the other hand, is dead.
Yep. One of the narrators in this solidly contemporary novel is a ghost.
Ashlyn is recently dead and she finds herself inexplicably spending her afterlife observing Breckon and his downward spiral. Breckon, meanwhile, is navigating friends, family, school and his relationship with his girlfriend, Jules. Their stories unfold, with Ashlyn slowly remembering her story and Breckon determining how, and if, his life can move forward. There’s not a lot that can be said regarding the plot without being ridiculously spoilerly, but eventually we do learn why the two are connected.
When looking through my Kindle, I noticed that all of my highlights were in chapters from Ashlyn’s point of view. I found myself connecting more with Ashlyn and her story than I did Breckon. So much about her tale made me just ache for her, for the things she’ll never experience and for the things she’d change if given the chance.
This is one of the longest, short books I’ve read.
Goodreads tells me that it took me 19 days to read this book—19 days to read 288 pages! That’s a night of reading for me oftentimes. This one is heavy. And intense.
While they’re very different novels in both style and plot, my experience reading My Beating Teenage Heart reminded me of my experience reading Gayle Forman’s If I Stay. I struggled with both so much—the level of grief, loss and sadness in both is absolutely off the charts. And while both contain threads of hope throughout, that intensity is hard for me emotionally as a reader.
Memorable Moments Etc
Ashlyn, early in the novel, upon discovering her condition:
If I’m talking to myself, there must be a me. That in itself is a revelation. I exist.
Ashlyn, reflecting upon the things that she’ll miss:
I wonder, did I ever, in the last year or so of my life that I’ve yet to remember, get wrecked like this with my friends?
I can’t really understand why anyone would want to. Dancing, eating, playing video games and making out with someone you’re into all seem like things that are just as much fun when you’re sober, and as far as I can see being drunk only makes you loud and/or dumb.
Ashlyn, while watching Breckon, which epitomizes both the tone and plot of My Beating Teenage Heart:
There’s a kind of peace in the stillness of the moment that I wonder if Breckon feels.
That’s all I do with him, watch and wonder. If I was still alive and knew him, would I be able to do more?
The final 20 percent of the novel is absolutely breathtaking. If the first 80 percent had been at that level this would’ve been on my “must read” list. With that said, it’s still recommended, but know that it’s a tough journey. If you’ve never read C.K. Kelley Martin before, I’d start with one of her other novels before tackling My Beating Teenage Heart.