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Book Review: Ketchup Clouds by Ann Pilcher

Feeling guilty for a death that she herself has caused, Zoe writes letters to a man on death row for murdering his wife to talk about what happened.

Why it works:  From the moment Zoe begins writing, it is clear that she is plagued by a horrible guilt and readers will keep reading to figure out what happened.  Since it is written in letter form, it is a quick read and it has the immediacy of voice working in its favor.  And once you learn that there are two brothers involved, the question simply become which one and how.  This is not a gory story of monsters and madness, but a simple, haunting story of how one simple misstep can have consequences that will haunt you for a lifetime.

The part that REALLY bothered me: 
Soon after we first meet Zoe, she goes to a party and gets drunk.  The next day, she learns that one of the boys at the party took a picture of her and passed it around the school.  For completely crappy reasons, Zoe ends up dating this boy in what turns out to be a completely unhealthy and unfulfilling relationship.  They have almost no actual conversations with one another.  You’re not supposed to like this relationship, so Pilcher succeeds here.  But GAH, please don’t start dating the guy who takes nudie pics of you while you are blitzed out.  Just don’t.

Another interesting tidbit: This is not just a story about what happened that night.  It is a look at Zoe’s life as she writes to this man on death row and describes the people involved, her role in what happened, and her subsequent guilt.  In it we meet Zoe’s entire family, including her father, who is struggling to pay the bills after being laid off, and her mother, who wrestles with guilt of her own.  The side details are in fact richer and more nuanced than the story of what actually happened that night.  I thought that Ketchup Clouds failed in the story it wanted to tell, at least for me, but there were some interesting things happening in the details that made this a rich and authentic portrait of teenage life.

There are some other interesting, discussable parts, including the topic of how people handle both grief and guilt (the adults in this book really get this one wrong as far as I am concerned).  And there is another male romantic character that helps give this book the emotional resonance it seems to be lacking, but again – it is also problematic.  Read it and come back and we’ll discuss it.

In the end, I think the thing that makes this book succeed is because of the epistolary nature of the story, the sense of guilt that haunts Zoe, and how it compels you to keep reading.  A different format and it would have hands down failed, which shows the wisdom of Pilcher.  This definitely ended up being a marginal book for me but Kirkus and Publishers Weekly both gave it starred reviews.  Yes, I think the description will grab teen readers and it will circulate, but in the end it doesn’t leave me with that satisfied feeling you get from reading a truly good book, in part because the “what happened” is kind of “eh” and some of the character voices are very inconsistent.  I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

This review reflects an eARC.  Publication date is November 5, 2013.