Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor

The Things You Kiss Goodbye is a bittersweet novel about relationships, first love and struggling through terrible loss. It also tackles the sensitive subject of abuse in teen relationships.

Bettina Vasilia who lives with her Momma, Bampas (father) and her two younger brothers, ten year old Favian and seven year old Avel is Greek and very different from most of her classmates. She wears combat boots, has a long thick braid of hair, a wide smile and is covered in henna tattoos.

Bettina first met Brady Cullen at the end of their sophomore year when she was just fifteen. At that time Brady was sweet and shy which Bettina found endearing. Bettina's Bampas is very strict; she's not allowed to date, she has to be picked up from school and is expected home at night for family dinner. After waiting numerous times with her outside the school, Brady meets Bampas who gives his permission for Brady to date Bettina. So Brady becomes Bettina's way of getting around her Bampas's strict rules which leave her feeling like she's "kind of grounded as a way of life."

At first Brady is a good boyfriend; he is kind, friendly, thoughtful and caring. Before school breaks for summer Brady convinces Bettina to try out for cheerleading which she does because she realizes it will allow her another excuse to be out at night.

They continue to be friends thorough the summer but the beginning of school in September sees a change in Brady's behaviour towards Bettina. Brady has a group of people he hangs out with and he seems friendly with everyone at school. "Brady Cullen wasn't a shy, skinny guy bouncing a ball just beneath everyone's radar anymore. He was a nodding, fist-bumping, 'jock machine,' working the hallway like it was his job."

When Bettina meets an old friend, Tony Colletti, Brady acts jealous. The first week of school, Brady takes Bettina back to his house where he forces her to have sex with him, completely unaware that she does not feel ready for this unexpected move forward in their relationship. From this point on Brady begins to hurt Bettina. It starts out small, like stabbing her with the toothpick end of a clay figure she had made for Brady and a few days later crushing her hand causing severe bruising and swelling from her new school ring. After the latter injury, Bettina flees the school and crosses over to Hammer Hill Industrial Park where she encounters a handsome young man who looks like a cowboy or a motorhead. This young man who appears to be much older than Bettina, around twenty five or so, takes her to Unit 37, tenderly ministers to her injured hand and puts her ring onto a shoelace so she can still wear it. Bettina nicknames him Cowboy and discovers her runs an auto shop.

Bettina makes excuses for Brady because he always seems genuinely sorry. The situation with Brady makes Bettina recall the advice her Bampas always gives her: fili antio or "kiss it goodbye". Whenever she was denied something by her Bampas, he had her kiss his cheek and then told her to bury her disappointment and not to cry. To let it go. Bettina decides she will apply Bampas's fili antio philosophy to her relationship with Brady.

Bettina agrees to visit Tony Colletti's nonna, Regina Colletti, who is sick with cancer. Bettina once lived in the same neighbourhood as Tony, so they have many memories of his nonna who ruled as both queen bee and rebel.

As the days pass, Bettina is drawn to Cowboy. She begins taking him coffee early in the morning as she visits his shop before school. Cowboy asks her if the boy he saw her with is the one who hurts her. Bettina brushes this off refusing to acknowledge what Cowboy has quickly recognized.When the cops show up at his shop, Cowboy tells Bettina that his family is messed up adn that there were problems at his ma's home during the night.

Brady's physical and emotional abuse of Bettina continues to escalate.  Bettina meets Regina again and wants to tell her the truth about Brady, about how at first he was a nice boyfriend but how he changed. Instead, she reasons that she "just had to steer him around so he'd be funny and tender." and that she is the problem. To that end she commits herself "to making things better with Brady." She tries everything to diffuse situations that look like they might cause him to behave badly. One day in October she brings baklava for the cheerleaders. Bettina tries her fili antio philosophy but Brady smashes the locker door hard enough that it knocks the pastries out of her hands onto the floor. Afterwards as she is rushing to cheerleading practice, Brady drills a basketball into her knee severely injuring her. Later Brady brings ice for her knee, leading the cheerleaders to think he is such a caring boyfriend. At this point Bettina tries to tell Brady that when he's mad he needs to tell her. This seems to work for a time as Brady is on his best behaviour.

Meanwhile during another visit with Tony's nonna, Regina tells Bettina about a boy she fell in love with when she was fourteen and how her father beat her badly when he found out about them Regina says never forgot that first love and that her father was wrong to do what he did. Bettina says Regina's story "stitched itself to my heart".

Cowboy is concerned about Bettina's leg injury but once again she deflects his questions. They continue to meet during mornings and sometimes after school always avoiding the subject of Brady. During this time Cowboy encourages Bettina with her idea about opening a coffee shop with one of her father's properties and reveals to Bettina that her father is very wealthy, something she did not know. Their relationship begins to shift gradually as Bettina and Cowboy often go for milkshakes and she helps out in the shop. One afternoon Cowboy takes her to the hill on the water company property and Bettina tells him how she feels. When he tells her she can't come to his auto shop anymore Bettina begs him to let her continue to visit.During one of Bettina's visits, Cowboy reveals his true name, Silas Wolcott Shepherd.

In November, as Brady's basketball season approaches, he becomes increasingly stressed and the abuse returns. He becomes furiously jealous when another boy asks her to dance at a party and during a fight Bettina falls seriously injuring her cheek. Bettina's injury prompts Cowboy to tell her about the scars she saw on his back a few weeks earlier - that his ma beat him and his dad and brothers left. But Cowboy stayed with his ma and this leads Bettina to question his reasons for staying.  When Cowboy comes to see her at her home, sneaking in the back way, Bettina acknowledges that she is doing the same thing with Brady - that she is really putting up with the abuse because she's using Brady as a means of getting around her father's restrictive rules and getting out of the house.

One day Brady violently assaults Bettina by yanking her braid, injuring her neck and smashing her locker door into her side. It is the assault and Cowboy's recent altercation with his mother that leaves him bruised that makes Bettina realize she is being abused in the same way that Cowboy has been and that she needs to stop it.

However, when Bettina finally concedes that Brady Cullen is hurting her, and realizes she needs to leave him, she feels trapped. Bettina feels there is no way she can leave Brady without there being some kind of fallout. She knows that if she tells people at school he is abusive, he will be given the benefit of the doubt. She can't quit the cheerleading squad because she's made a commitment for the year. If she told her Bampas, although upset that she is being hurt, Bettina feels he would likely see the situation as a proof that he was right all along about her having a boyfriend - that she was too immature and he would claim that she didn't do enough to support Brady through his difficult season.

Bettina and Brady go through the motions of being boyfriend/girlfriend with Bettina gradually finding excuses to not spend time with him.  As Brady continues to have an awesome season, Bettina is there to support him, hoping that when the season ends, they will end too.

As her relationship with Brady begins to unwind her friendship with Cowboy grows deeper. He takes her to his dad's farm and on New Years Day he sneaks her out of her bedroom and takes her to the hill on the water property. In February, Cowboy shows up at her home via the River Road and shows her the reconditioned '57 Chevy. Bettina is stunned to see Cowboy with a large welt across his face. Cowboy tells her that this was from his mother and that he has finally left. He thought his mother was finished with the abuse;  "'I didn't see this one coming. But you know what? There's always another one coming.' He looked at me dead-on. 'You have to get completely out of the way.' " Cowboy tells Bettina that her situation is the same as his with his mother and that Brady is hurting her. Cowboy and Bettina finally admit that they are in love and that they need to try to be together.

When Bettina returns home during the early morning hours her mother is waiting for her, calling her out on her lies. Bettina finally admits to her momma what has been going on and that she loves this much older man. The next morning however, Bettina's world is crushed when she must confront the tragedy that has occurred overnight. Her world changed forever, Bettina filled with a deep sense of loss,  gradually takes steps to take control over her own destiny and how the men in her life treat her.

The Things You Kiss Goodbye is definitely a novel for older teens as there are numerous references to sexual encounters, a much older man involved with a young teenager and an abusive teenage relationship. The strength of this novel is Connor's ability to realistically portray the abusive behaviour in Brady and Bettina's relationship and Bettina's inability to move out of this situation. As is often the case, the abuse begins to escalate, Bettina behaviour is typical of many victims of abuse, making excuses for the perpetrator. Bettina like many women, believe they can change their man only to learn that this is not possible. Bettina lives by her father's mantra, fili antio to kiss goodbye the things she is told she can't have or are beyond her control to change. While this philosophy might work for a parent and young child, it cannot be applied readily to adulthood, as Bettina begins to discover. It is this learned behaviour that enables her to stay in the relationship with Brady for so long despite the fact that she knows he is hurting her. She also believes, as do many abused women, that his behaviour is her fault.

Another interesting aspect that Connor portrays is how Brady hides his abusive nature beneath a veneer of public kindness. After he drills the basketball into Bettina's knee, he shows up at her gym with ice, causing the cheerleaders to swoon over how sweet he is.  I also liked that fact that Connor portrayed a situation where a teenage girl was pushed into sexual activity by her boyfriend before she was ready - something many girls face and not often acknowledged.

Bettina's relationship with Brady is a complete contrast to her relationship with Cowboy. Cowboy treats her with respect and because of their age difference is hands off. They develop a strong bond of friendship that includes mutual respect, something completely lacking in her relationship with Brady. They support each other in contrast to the self-centered Brady who seems unable to recognize the emotional needs Bettina might have and has no interest in encouraging her. In fact, he does just the opposite when Bettina shows him her project which garnered an A+ from the teacher, he blows her off, ridiculing her idea.

But it's not just Bettina's relationship with Brady that is disordered either. Her relationship with Bampas is one of control, lacking in compassion and the realization that Bettina is growing into adulthood. Bampas repeatedly informs Bettina how her afterschool activities are disrupting their family life and making things difficult for the family. He isn't supportive of her, has many rules and when she tries to discuss her needs, Bampas shuts her down with a brusque "siopi" or silence. Eventually Bettina does confront her father on his philosophy after the loss of Cowboy telling him not to tell her to "kiss it goodbye".  She tells her father that her loss is real and needs to be acknowledged; "He is dead. I'll never get over it. This is not a thing I can just kiss goodbye, Bampas. I won't get off that easy. I have to feel the whole thing. So don't say that to me."

I felt that the author didn't adequately explain the abrupt change in Bradyalthough she seems to attribute it to him becoming a jock and the increased pressures of playing with the school basketball team. His self-centered behaviour was well drawn.

Overall, Connor does a great job of fashioning realistic characters, excellent dialogue and creating situations that are believable. While the events are tragic, The Things You Kiss Goodbye ends on a hopeful note. Bettina acknowledges the hurt and loss she still feels in September of another year her heart open to the good that came from loving him.

Book Details:
The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
New York: Katherine Tegen Books an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers     2014
358 pp.

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