Book: Relative Strangers
Author: Paula Garner
Age Range: 13 and up
In Relative Strangers, by Paula Garner, high school senior Jules learns for the first time that she spent nearly two years in foster care when she was a small child, while her alcoholic single mother struggled. Since then, Jules' mother has stayed sober, if distant, and the two live a frugal existence. Jules can't help feeling a bit envious of her two best friends, Gab and Leila, who have much more stable, comfortable home lives. When Jules decides to track down her foster family, she finds Luke, five years her senior, who is thrilled to reconnect with his long-lost little sister. However, while Luke thinks of Jules as the sister whose diapers he helped change, Jules, with no memory of Luke's family, struggles to overcome a powerful attraction to her handsome "brother."
Personally, I was a little uncomfortable with the "attraction to the brother-figure" storyline, though I understand that it was necessary to provide conflict to the story. Apart from that, however, I quite enjoyed Relative Strangers. Garner's characterization is strong, particularly when it comes to Jules. Jules positive breathes from the page, as do her friends, including Eli, a quirky gay barista who keeps pet rats. The relationship between Jules and her mother is nuanced, and really, none of the relationships in the book are one-dimensional. This is especially true for Jules' relationship with Gab and Leila, who are depicted as proton and neutron (completely solid bond) to Jules' close but still secondary circling electron.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Jules' voice:
"Dr. Hathaway put some money down on the table. "Pizza money, in case you're still hungry after you've eaten us out of house and home. Gotta keep those tapeworms thriving." He winked at us. I glanced at the cash on the table, thinking how many hours of work a few twenties represented to me and how they were nothing to the Hathaways, and the Wassermans, too. I cringed at myself for the money envy on top of the family envy, but apparently my coveting knew no bounds. When Leila's dad gave her a kiss on the temple, I wanted to crawl under the kitchen island with the copper-bottomed pots and fancy appliances and cry."
"Stepping outside was like receiving a hug from a benevolent deity. The sky beamed a blue of impossible vibrancy, and the air smelled of rain soaked earth and budding green life. Spudly, the Jenskins's basset hound, barked joyously at me through the fence as I passed by. Sun flashed in the water rushing along the drainage ditches on Elm Street. As I made my way through the neighborhood and into town, I buzzed with excitement and hope." (Chapter 6 - as Jules is about to meet Luke for the first time)
So we have vivid, evocative writing; strong characterization; and gender, religious, and socioeconomic diversity. Jules also has unusual interests (she loves everyday old things, like china and buttons). There's plenty of emotion (including a couple of sad things), without Relative Strangers being overly melodramatic. There are some aspects that make Relative Strangers better for high schoolers than middle schoolers (references to casual sex, smoking pot, sneaking alcohol from parents), but nothing that isn't realistic or thoughtful. In short, this is top quality young adult fiction all around. Recommended for teens and for adults who enjoy YA.
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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