Going Over by Beth Kephart: Is Beautiful Writing Enough?
Despite Beth Kephart being a highly-regarded YA author (and finalist for the National Book Award), I had not picked up one of her books prior to her most recent, Going Over.
The writing in Going Over is excellent, and I can see why Kephart's novels are so highly regarded. With that said, the beautiful writing at times out-shined the storytelling and in some respects got in the way of Going Over's narrative.
As is popular at the moment, Going Over adopts the dual narrator style, with half of the story being told from the first-person perspective of Ada, who lives in 1980s West Berlin. She paints graffiti by night and dreams of her Stefan, son of her grandmother's friend who lives in East Berlin, "going over" the wall so the young couple can be together once and for all.
The second point-of-view is that of Stefan.
But, rather than first person, it's in a second person style, creating a distance from Stefan's perspective.
His view is rather myopic as a result, which is unfortunate, because I wanted to know more about his life in East Berlin.
Ada's perspective worked for the story and helped create a vibrant setting of a Berlin that's in flux, gritty and different from what we see in a lot of young adult fiction (which this is categorized as, though I think it could also comfortably fit on adult shelves). Unfortunately, because of the stylistic choice, the view of the East isn't so clear and while that could have worked theoretically in terms of making the East Berlin feel stifling to the reader, the execution didn't wholly work in that way.
Stefan is conflicted about going over the wall and leaving his grandmother behind in favor of Ada. His entire life has been lived behind the wall. And if he leaves, and he survives all the risks--being shot, attacked by dogs, and many other horrors--he's never returning.
Beyond the second person point-of-view, the other major element that frustrated me with Going Over were the catalysts for Stefan's decision whether or not to flee East Berlin.
This is a spoiler, so jump to the next paragraph, if you don't want to be spoiled!}
It is eventually revealed that Ada desperation for Stefan is wrapped up in her desire for him to protect her. He's torn by his desire to effectively "save" Ada and his loyalty to his grandmother, who would be all alone without him. I'm extremely weary of the rescue trope, particularly in teen fiction, and as a result, this disappointed me quite a bit. Additionally, an oh-too-convenient plot contrivance occurs, making Stefan's decision far easier.
End of spoilers!
While Going Over disappointed me more than one way, it's still a book that's hard to not recommend simply because of the high quality of the writing.
Kephart's writing is lyrical, and almost reminded me of a verse novel, despite it being prose.
There's a rhythmic and tonal quality to it that makes Going Over worth reading, even though the story somewhat disappoints. As a result, I don't think I've felt so torn about a novel in a long, long time. I read Going over months ago and am still mulling over what exactly I thought about it.
I assumed that trying to write through my thoughts would bring some clarity to that conflict, but instead, I feel more confused as to how exactly I felt about Going Over. Based on the writing along, I'll definitely be checking out Small Damages--her much-lauded 2012 novel set in southern Spain, a place I absolutely love--which comes highly recommended by both Nafiza and Keertana.
I'm hoping that book's narrative lives up to the promise of Kephart's stunningly beautiful prose.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.