Last week I mentioned how much I loved Coe Booth‘s Kendra. I have much to say about this book but let me start with the notion of realism. I am on the record as saying that I am not a fan. Yet Kendra is indisputably realist. It is set in the real world. There are no zombies, vampires, space ships or magic. So how can I say I don’t like realism when I love Kendra?

Last night I was called on my anti-realism stance. It turns out that when I say I don’t like realism I’m talking about a very specific kind of book. I don’t like most John Updike or Philip Roth. I disliked Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland. When I say I don’t like realism what I mean is that I don’t like unplotted books with protags who are naval-gazing bores. I need plot! I need texture! I need to care one way or another about the main characters! Something other than complete indifference.

I had strong reactions to all the characters in Kendra. Very strong. I wanted to kill Kendra’s mother. And sometimes her grandmother and father. But never Kendra. I worried about Kendra. At the end of the book I had a big ole cry for Kendra. Several weeks after finishing the book I’m still hoping Kendra’s doing okay and that things work out better with her mother. Colour me, cautiously optimistic.

Kendra’s set in the Bronx and Harlem in New York City. It’s the story of a girl who was raised by her grandmother because her mother, Renee, had her at the age of 14. Rather than give her life over to looking after Kendra she concentrates on getting educated and out of the projects. At the beginning of the book Renee graduates from her PhD program at Princeton. Kendra thinks this means Renee’s coming home. It doesn’t. Kendra’s desparate need for her mother’s love and approval and Renee’s ignoring of her is almost painful to read about. She does everything she can to keep her daughter at arms length. Her priority is her career, not her daughter. Did I mention that I wanted to kill her? In the meantime Kendra’s left with her overprotective grandmother who does not trust her at all. (Thus making me want to strangle her.) And occasionally her hapless father.

I will not tell more of the plot and characters. I want you to discover them yourselves.

What’s remarkable about Kendra other than its effortlessly clean and elegant prose is that you wind up understanding everyone in it no matter how much you want to strangle them. It’s also an astonishingly honest novel, rendering Kendra’s actions understandable even when she’s making mistakes. There’s a lot most of us will do to be loved. And that’s what this novel is about.

Highly highly recommended.


  1. caitlin on #

    Thank you Justine for chatting about one of my fave books (so far) of the year. Kendra is stunning and very honest. I read Kendra several months ago and immediately put it in the hand of my co-booksellers — I work at a large indie in Seattle and best of all I’ve put Kendra and Tyrell into the hands of teachers and teens. Read Kendra tonight.

  2. Rachel on #

    Just your review made me extremely interested: were I to hear about this in really life and only hear one side of the story, I would probably support Renee’s decision, but clearly Kendra is getting hurt. Something to think about…

  3. Justine on #

    Caitlin: Isn’t it breathtakingly good?

    Rachel: And the thing is I still support Renee’s decision. I mean I did the exact same thing as her. Renee’s career path is my career path. I got a PhD. I was an academic for awhile. But I didn’t have a kid . . .

    But there has to be a way to do what Renee did and not entirely abandon your child.

    Kendra is completely honest about how hard it is to raise a child and how many sacrifices are involved.

  4. Eric Luper on #

    I love Coe’s writing. Just pulls me in!

  5. Clix on #

    Ooo! Honesty… sounds yummy. And yay! our library has it!

  6. Melissa Walker on #

    Oh, yes! Reading KENDRA as we type. And it’s the pick of the month for August on, so anyone who reads it, come join the discussions with Coe!

  7. Fréh on #

    Loved the book!

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