I need to confess something about Karen Hattrup’s second novel, Our Year in Love and Parties.
I began reading it with some reluctance. The main reason was that I had been totally wowed by Hattrup’s first book. I recommended it to everyone who would listen and, months later, my pulse still quickens when I think of Frannie and Tru.
As a result, my expectations for her second novel were unfairly high. This might be like that second trip to Niagara Falls, where all you see is more water and rock.
Second confession: I had a strong rooting interest. I knew the author more than a decade ago when, as Karen Rivers, she was among my favorite writers at the South Bend Tribune. After reading her account of a punk rock concert at the Chevron Bar, I invited her to lunch at Fiddler’s Hearth just so I could hear her talk about writing.
When a former colleague told me that Karen had published a young-adult novel, my first thought was, “Please, Lord, let it be good.”
I need to quick-walk you through Frannie before I discuss Our Year. Frannie is an eighth-grade girl in a working-class Baltimore family. She is dreading the summer because she doesn’t have a job or any friends, and she knows she’ll be an outcast next year in high school.
What changes? Her cousin, Tru, has been thrown out by his parents and needs to stay with Frannie’s family for the summer. He’s older, intellectual, sarcastic. He smokes and knows how to sneak into bars. He has connections with quirky cool guys who play in a band.
My first thought was to compare it with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Think instead in terms of how Nick Carraway changed upon meeting the mysterious and dangerous Jay Gatsby.
If you diagram the plots, Hattrup’s book is a reverent retelling of The Great Gatsby for younger readers, only better in some ways. For storytelling, you can’t surpass Fitzgerald’s elegance, but readers of all ages are more likely to have a closer connection with Frannie than they had with Gatsby’s sidekick.
For Our Year in Love and Parties, it took me a couple dozen pages to get past that “Please, Lord” feeling. After all, this is a young-adult romance novel of sorts and I’m 65 years old.
The story mainly follows high school senior Tucker, who has had a crush on college sophomore Erika ever since they worked a summer together at a small amusement center. Their first party together is at summer’s end, when former employees get together for what amounts to a teenager beer blast. They hit it off, but neither Tucker nor Erika want to admit it. After he overhears Erika describing him as a puppy dog, Tucker gets too drunk and Erika writes him off as an immature boy.
Three more parties follow — when she’s home for Christmas, when he visits her on campus for a weekend and when she shows up at Tucker’s grandmother’s house after his father dies.
The author understands that relationships are less complicated when viewed from afar. We know these two characters clearly belong together but each is incapable of seeing the straight line to get there. He drinks, she lies, he withdraws, she cheats, he gives up, she disappears.
If you need a plot doppelgänger for this book, I suppose you could drop a road flare near those Meg Ryan happy-enders from 30 years ago. The reason this book prevails for me is that Hattrup’s characters aren’t comedians. Erika has done bad, bad things that she can’t escape. Tucker — with a dying father and an injured shoulder that won’t heal in time for baseball season — is just plain wounded and uncertain.
One nugget included for American lit grads is the quiet appearance of a T.S. Eliot book, open to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” You don’t have to know the key stanza — “In a minute, there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” — to understand this book, but it helps.
Ah, so many decisions and revisions. One comes after the college party where Tucker is rehearsing a declaration to Erika, with the line that should change everything: “Every night we’ve spent together this year is a night that I wished would never end. I want more of them if you want them too.”
Erika has left the room. Tucker idly checks her Instagram page to see photos of them together on their way to the party, but he also sees photos of her smiling a bit too much with a male college classmate.
And Hattrup writes this: “Tucker went back to the photos of himself and Erika on the boat, and suddenly felt like a little kid. With a very deep breath and conscious effort, Tucker closed out of Instagram. He looked at the time, counting the minutes since Erika had been gone, and now it seemed like a mistake that he was sitting here.”
We ache for Tucker because we recognize ourselves there. Our best thoughts allow us to soar, to imagine great things for ourselves and others. But our doubts — in Prufrock terms, mermaids’ voices — wake us and we drown.
As with Frannie and Tru, the author has created characters that walk on familiar turf. These people leave deep footprints.
Ken Bradford is a freelance writer and former reporter and editor at the South Bend Tribune.