Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart

Seventeen year old Katherine whose twin sister Anna died this past February 6th is not coping well. It is now summer, and Katherine is distraught and has feelings of guilt and anger, especially towards her father and mother who appear outwardly at least, to "have gone on living". Katherine cannot forgive them for this.

Katherine's parents seem remarkably disengaged. Upper class 19th century Philadelphians, her father works at the Philadelphia National Bank while her mother is preoccupied with teas and women's rights. Katherine wants to tell her mother what happened so that she can receive her mother's forgiveness and in turn forgive herself. But her mother simply insists that the past remain in the past and that they look to the future. But the future is what Katherine is determined not to face.

So, Katherine plans to take her own life. She has been visiting the highest places in Philadelphia and when the book opens, she has decided that place to fly away will be the Colosseum. But when she climbs out onto the roof, she is discovered by Bennett, her sister's lover. Bennett has been shadowing Katherine for months because he knows her pain and knows what she wants to do.

Although Katherine doesn't act on her intentions throughout the rest of the summer, she hasn't forgotten what she wants. As she plans her next attempt the reader is filled in on the events of the previous year in the life of Anna and Katherine. Anna is the older twin, more inquisitive, and the one who seems to indulge in risky behaviour. And Katherine is the one who always rescues her.

"Still, as they got older, Katherine put herself on guard, made herself responsible for interrupting Anna's drift toward the perilous, for fixing the fences and defining the borders, the edges, the ends. Anna listened to Katherine when it was important, because Katherine's talent had never been beauty; it was saving, rescue."

But things changed last April when Anna became involved with Bennett, the baker's boy - a very unsuitable match for a girl from a family with a high social standing such as Anna and Katherine's. Bennett is, as their father describes people from the lower classes, a "dangerous neighbor". Anna's father had hoped to marry her to Alan Carver but Anna quickly cooled that idea. Instead, she bullies and manipulates Katherine into helping her arrange clandestine meetings with Bennett - something Katherine deeply resents.She feels betrayed by the loss of her close relationship with her twin.

When Katherine rebels at her sister's dishonesty with their parents, Anna simply ignores her and acts as though she doesn't need her. Anna tries to tell Katherine that she is judging Bennett because of his social status. "Look into his eyes sometime. Try and see him." she tells Katherine. Anna seems oblivious to the effect her behaviour is having on her sister.

Even when they travel to Cape May for holidays and Katherine makes Anna promise not to lie anymore and to tell their father, Anna breaks this promise too. She has no intention of doing this and continues to manipulate Katherine, causing them to drift further apart. Finally, Katherine decides that she can no longer save Anna. She decides to accept Anna as she is and in doing this, she feels she is responsible for her death.

"That night Katherine gave up trying to talk sense into Anna. That night she did not try to argue her twin sister out of her gargantuan joy; she did not try to save her. It was then that Katherine decided to begin to look the other way on purpose, but this time without anger, without the intent to prove a point. She decided to stop protecting Anna, so that she might love her more truly."

Until one day, Anna arranges for the two of them to go skating and meet up with Bennett - again without their father's knowledge. Events on that fateful day in February unfold in such a way that Katherine is not able to rescue Anna. She blames herself.

All of this is revealed to the reader on the day Katherine decides to climb to the top of the tallest building on the grounds of the Philadelphia Centennial Fair. Once again she meets Bennett and this time they have the conversation they both need to. Although Bennett reminds Katherine of the terrible tragedy, when Katherine really does look at him and listen to him, he helps her deal with her loss by realistically focusing on what happened and that no one could have saved Anna. This creates a crisis of identity for Katherine at this moment because Katherine's identity is completely tied up with being Anna's caretaker.

"For if Katherine isn't needed for anything, if she is no longer responsible for Anna, who is she now? What can she give?"
But meeting Bennett and coming to the Centennial Exhibition turns out to be the salvation of Katherine when she saves a baby and forms several new friendships; with a young man, William,  who saves animals and a woman whose baby she cares for. In the end, there is hope and new possibilities for Katherine.

I actually thought there would be more about the Centennial Exhibition in this novel but it really plays a part only at the end. Kephart ably describes the fair and gives modern readers a sense of the setting with the modern up-to-date novelties on display at the fair across the street from Shantytown with its prostitutes and hucksters and the squalor of its wooden shacks.

"The wonders of the world slide past. Parisian corsets cavorting on their pedestals. Vases on lacquered shelves. Folding beds. Walls of cutlery. The sweetest assortment of sugar-coated pills, all set to sail on a yacht.....

At the intersection of the main aisle and the central transept is a palace of jewels: Tiffany, Starr & Marcus, Caldwell. ...See these cinnamon colored cameos; this diamond necklace; these perfect solitaires; these black, white, and pink pearls...."
Dangerous Neighbors doesn't get bogged down in Katherine's guilt, mainly because it's too short to do that and because the narrative flips from present to past, gradually revealing the relationship between the two sisters. It is emotional and we feel Katherine's brokenness and despair over the loss of her twin and the fact that her parents seem unaware of her emotional state. Dangerous Neighbors has at it's core themes of loss, guilt, and redemption as well as a the typical themes of teen suicide and identity. Brilliantly done and a great short read for teens looking for something different.

Book Details:
Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
New York: Laura Geringer Books, Egmont USA 2010
176 pp.


Melanie said...

I read this book awhile back and absolutely loved it. I agree, it was very different.

Serena said...

I enjoyed this novel as well, but wanted more about William...perhaps there will be a sequel!