Friday, April 4, 2008

No need to be Undercover about this book

Sometimes I pick up galleys at Book Expo or ALA and they get buried at the back of a shelf or put in the "to read later" pile and I forget about them and miss some books that are absolute gems. Such is the case of Undercover by Beth Kephart.

The plot: Picking this up, I expected it to be a somewhat lighthearted Cyrano retelling, somewhat like Tucker Shaw's very enjoyable Flavor of the Week. What I got was a quiet study of one girl's experience with love, with the cute boy at school and her father, and also herself. Elisa is invisible at school to everyone at school except the boys who want her to write love poetry for the girls they plan to court. Elisa, like the Victorian poets, finds much solace and truth in nature. She walks through the woods near her home, collecting items for a box of inspiration, and all the while she misses her father, who travels much of the time for work. Her existence is relatively unremarkable until she is asked to write a love poem for Lila, the most popular girl in school. In writing, she becomes close to Theo, the boy she's writing the poems for, invoking Lila's wrath. The book makes no bones about the Cyrano De Bergerac parallels; in fact, Elisa is studying it in English class and her teacher, inspired by Elisa's insight and wisdom, encourages her to go on to college and study writing. The one secret that Elisa is keeping from almost everyone is her ice-skating; while her mother is at home missing her father, Elisa takes herself out to the frozen pond and jumps and spins. Lila, convinced that Theo is cheating on her with Elisa, is out to destroy Elisa's hope of winning a local skating competition.

Why you'll love it: Normally, I don't like to use the word "lyrical" when I review. Maybe it's my music background; lyrics can be anything from Un Bel Di to Smells Like Teen Spirit. But I felt that the language here deserves the "lyrical" adjective. I thought it flowed beautifully, observant and able to relate much of Elisa's emotion to the nature around her. I could hear the rising and falling pitch in the narrative. The peripheral characters are interesting but not so interesting that they take away from Elisa. Normally I'm a bit wary of hypersensitive, hyperobservant teen characters, but by building Elisa into a world of nature and classic literature, Kephart makes the reader thoroughly believe in Elisa's wisdom. Lila is cruel but doesn't slip into Evil Overlord dialogue. And Theo...I like him. He's a great boyfriend without being too perfect. This is a fast read, but the truth of humanity Kephart writes about will stay with you for a long time.

Beth Kephart's blog is at

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