A few years ago, I was watching the season finale of 90210 (season one), which had a Juno storyline, in that a teenage girl was pregnant and chose to give her baby up for adoption. As she’s holding the baby and bonding with her and then eventually has to hand her over to the adoptive parents, I was sitting there with tears streaming down my face. While I was reading Emily Giffin's latest novel, “Where We Belong,” I went back to that moment and thought how Marian must have felt the way Adrianna (the teen mom on the show) was feeling. And as a mom of three, I didn’t even want to imagine ever having to be in that position.
Marian Caldwell is a successful TV writer with a modest following for the show she created. She lives in a New York City penthouse, can afford to shop at Barney's, and has an equally successful boyfriend. Kirby Rose is a senior in high school out by St. Louis. She feels awkward and alone, especially next to her sister, who is in the spotlight at all times. Soon, Kirby finds herself in front of Marian's door one spring evening and what she reveals will shake up Marian's carefully constructed life, bringing up memories she thought were long-buried. Will Marian and Kirby be able to exist comfortably in each other's lives or will they have to make some difficult choices?
While reading "Where We Belong," I thought of how surreal it must have felt for Marian to meet her daughter for the first time at age 18. It’s been 18 years since I graduated high school and so much has gone on during that time. I couldn’t even start to explain that all to my own child if we had been separated for that long. And to think of how much I would have missed out on in their life! I am sure that having them show up at my home and infiltrate themselves into the life I have currently established would shake things up a lot. However, when faced with this situation, Marian tries to connect with Kirby as if she’s a long-lost sister or friend and that it’s totally natural that she be part of her current lifestyle. They go out to her favorite breakfast café and shopping for stylish clothes like it’s just another day out and Kirby was there for vacation. There was such a huge jumble of emotions to deal with and Marian was so casual about everything, even the other big secret that went along with this new change of events. At least that’s how it felt to me. I would have liked more access into Marian’s emotions. I felt like she shut me out the way she shut out everyone in her life after she became pregnant. And when I did see her tension show through, it was from Kirby’s perspective. Marian was supposed to be my age, but something about her made her seem much older than me. I don’t expect to connect well with every character I read about and perhaps I was just seeing her through Kirby’s eyes, which made me feel that emotional distance. I felt like she was just going through the motions throughout the story. I think seeing more about how her friendship from high school dissipated and how she was first able to make such fun and interesting friends as an adult would have given me more access into her personality. I know seeing the child you gave up for adoption for the first time ever is a huge shock, but I wish I could have seen that in a more dramatic fashion. I've read other reviews where the reader was able to completely connect with Marian, so maybe this was a one-off for me. However, the story was so engaging that I wanted to keep reading, no matter how connected I felt with any of the characters.
Kirby, on the other hand, was so easy to relate to, even though I had never been in her shoes in terms of her situation. However, I do know what it feels like to not fit in and wonder why that is the case. Kirby was just so fascinating on so many levels. I loved her “voice” and how she seemed so genuine. I applauded her for having a moral backbone during a time when most teenagers behave in selfish and immature ways. I wanted to hug her during all the moments she felt alone and frustrated. I thought it was cool that she liked playing drums. I don’t know of any teenage girls (even when I was growing up) who were into having such a talent. There was just something that really spoke to me about Kirby’s story and it made me wistful to be 18 again. I could totally see myself being friends with her, had we been in school together. I also had the easiest time picturing her throughout the story. In my head, I cast Gillian Zinser (Ivy from...you guessed it, 90210) in her role, should a movie be made of this novel. (I know the actress, like most on the show, is older than the role she plays, but she really seemed to fit the description of Kirby's looks and personality! )
As for the love interests in the story, there was an interesting contrast between Conrad (Marian’s past love) and Peter (Marian’s current boyfriend). Conrad was the high school rebel and reminded me of the kind of guys I lusted after as a teenager. He sounded really hot! And the fact that he was nice and crazy about Marian made that teenager in me jealous. Peter was all about business and he seemed impersonal at times, as a result. Sure, he could be nice, but the few times I definitely felt sympathy with Marian had to do with her frustration over where their relationship was going and how he treated her at work.
Emily Giffin once again proves her talent for writing a thought provoking and heartfelt story that was impossible to put down and is still something I think about, even while I’m reading other novels. She knows how to get into a reader’s mind and show them what she’d want to see for herself. I especially enjoyed that she focused a lot on the Chicago suburbs, as I grew up in that area (not the same suburb she mentions, but I know where it is and her descriptions are accurate, even though the B96 DJs were actually Eddie and JoBo). The other thing that stuck out was her use of music throughout the story since both Conrad and Kirby were musically talented. I like how she brought me back to the 90s with some of the songs she mentioned. She even has a guest appearance from one of her previous novels, and I love when she does that! There was a small issue of time consistency, but if you don't do the math like I always tend to, you can just assume that the story takes place two years into the future instead.
I think “Where We Belong” is one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year and I know based on how I felt about it, and what other readers have been saying, it’s worth the wait!
Thanks to Emily for the advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
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