Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez
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's review
Aug 14, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: review-copy, fiction, ya, 2012, angst
Read in September, 2012

Amelia has always lived in the shadow of her beautiful, lively and daring younger sister, Charlotte - or Charly as everyone but her grandmother calls her. Amelia is the straight-laced sister, the one who abides by the rules and who has spent years working hard towards her goal of being accepted to Columbia University. She had a nice three-year-long relationship with Will which she ended when she realised he'd fallen in love with Charly; guileless, loveable, popular Charly who was completely blind to it and seems to have no particular interest in any of her many followers and admirers.

Since the sisters' mother died when Amelia was two and Charly just a baby, they've lived with their grandmother in Florida. Their father is a local Methodist pastor, a nice man and a good father but one who spends more time working on his sermons and with the church than noticing what his children are up to - it's this distance that Amelia secretly resents. She has her hands full trying to rein Charly in, and keep her from getting in serious trouble - or that trouble getting back to their father and grandmother.

Everything changes between the sisters, once so close, when Charly doesn't return from a party in the next town. For the first time ever, Amelia skips school the next day, forfeiting her right to play in the field hockey match later that day. Charly had just got her driver's licence and taken the sisters' car, and Amelia has visions of a horrific accident. So when she arrives home to find that Charly is back and looking extremely hungover, with no apology to offer, she loses it. Their grandmother grounds them both.

That is just the beginning, but from there a gulf opens up between the sisters. Amelia resents Charly as she never has before, seeing her as little more than selfish, and barely noticing that Charly isn't the same. After several months of barely speaking to each other, Charly finally comes to Amelia and tells her the truth: she's pregnant.

For the sisters, abortion is equal to murder, and so there is only one path left open to them: to tell their grandmother. Tears they were expecting, and recrimination, but instead grandmother takes charge, quickly devising a plan that will ensure their father never finds out or loses his exemplary position in the community, and that will protect Charly from people's judgement, too. She will go to their mother's family in Alberta after Christmas, have the baby in Canada, and then return after the adoption, ready to start a new school year with none the wiser. Amelia can see the merits in the plan, but is angered and upset when her grandmother then tells her she must go too.

As the sisters head to their young aunt's place in Banff, a sky resort town in the Rocky Mountains an hour west of Calgary, Amelia's resentment of Charly only grows. It feels like her life has been ruined, uprooted all for Charly's stupid mistake. In the freezing mountain air of Banff, can the hostility between the sisters thaw? Will they ever get their close bond back, and will Charly ever have the strength to tell her disapproving sister the truth of what happened that night she went missing?

When I started reading this, I had no idea where it was going because of how vague the blurb was, and at one point, early on, I thought I was reading a work of Christian fiction. When Charly got pregnant, I worried that it was going to be one of those abstinence-lecturing moral sermons or something equally repugnant, but The Space Between Us is nothing of the sort. I didn't want to be as vague as the blurb, in this review, because the novel is so much more interesting than it lets on, and doesn't descend into the kind of melodrama that too often comes with the subject of teen pregnancy. And also because there's so much more to this story than just teen pregnancy.

Amelia narrates, and it's her perspective that colours everything, and her voice that sounds in your ears. She's a strong character, but for as clear as her thoughts and emotions are, Martinez has skilfully created space around the words for us to see Amelia from the outside, too, creating a kind of three-dimensional perspective where otherwise there might have been a more narrow scope. Amelia is such an "every day" character, someone who is safe and familiar but easily overlooked. She's a reliable character, but not a reliable witness - she's too emotionally involved for that. But it's easy to relate to her, and to sympathise with her. The interesting thing, as a reader, was how I could sympathise with her and feel annoyed with her at the same time.

This story is about Amelia growing up, really. In the background, it's also about Charly growing up, but that's not the focus, it just has to happen simultaneously. At first, their shared secret about Charly's pregnancy unites them. It also forces Amelia to rethink her assumptions, her judgements, though it takes much longer for her to really shake them off.

Right and wrong were so much clearer from a distance, or in a sermon, or in somebody else's life. But this was so muddy and real, I couldn't even see Charly in it, and she was right in front of me.

I used to know exactly what kind of girl got pregnant, and exactly what kind of girl got an abortion, and Charly wasn't either. Except Charly was pregnant. So either I didn't know who she was at all, or she was an exception to the rule - accidentally shuffled into the teenage slut category. [p.74]

Certainly the story doesn't glamorise teen pregnancy, but it doesn't overdo it in the other direction either. Truth is, every woman has a completely different experience, every pregnancy is different - there's no universal "truth" about pregnancy. Charly has a rough time of it in her first trimester:

"You have no idea how much my feet hurt," she moaned.
"Your fourteen-week-old fetus is how big - half a pound?"
"What's your point?"
"Just checking."
"It's not about how big it is. It's everything. My skin itches, my back hurts, my nose is plugged up, I feel like I'm going to puke, my joints kill, I have heartburn and the hiccups, and when I stand too long my vision starts to look carbonated around the edges. I think even my blood hurts. My body is being taken over by aliens."
"Congratulations. You've convinced me never to have children." [pp.106-7]

That's Amelia's voice, right there: sarcastic, caustic, sometimes abrasive, and increasingly sullen. It would probably get annoying but it's skilfully balanced against a great supporting cast and tempered by the fact that it's so easy to understand why Amelia feels this way (though her sarcasm was always present). Her reasoning, most of the time, is clear and simple, and it has emotional strength in that clarity. She sees herself as Charly's "collateral damage" (p.90), and that she's being punished for Charly's mistakes. Banished, to Canada. Though in reality, she's using it as an excuse not to have to deal with her own life: the fact that she didn't get into Columbia and has no back-up plan, that she lost her captaincy on the hockey team, that her feelings for Will are unrequited, that she wishes she could have more of her father's attention. Amelia is a "glass half empty" kind of person, and her resentment only grows and grows. She is resistant to her aunt's friendliness, and sullen about living in Banff. But we start to get a clearer idea of Amelia through how she observes things and people:

"What's your aunt like?"
"I don't know. We've only talked for a couple of minutes so far." That was both true and false. We had only talked for a couple of minutes, but I was pretty sure I knew what she was like: She was a bartender with at least one tattoo and several piercings, she sang in a band and had screwed around in high school and lived in an apartment owned by a boyfriend who wanted her to quit nursing school. Oh, and she was trying way too hard. "Charly loves her." [p.145]

Amelia is quick to judge and assume things about others, having picked up the trait from her small town - a place she acknowledges is judgemental. If everyone in Tremonton is like Amelia, you can see why you'd want to get Charly away from there before people learn that she's pregnant. But it also saves Amelia too, rescues her from herself in a way. Towards the end, one of the minor characters - the school counsellor - points out that Amelia is a perfectionist who holds others up to her own unreasonably high standards, and that was a very apt description. She also has a pretty negative self-image, mostly because she's always compared herself to Charly, who takes after their mother; as such, we don't get a genuine idea of what Amelia looks like, only glimpses of her true self through Ezra's eyes.

In many ways, it is Ezra who saves the book from being too narrowly focused on the sisters and their problems with trust and communication. Ezra is a local, a young man who works at the library and volunteers for the ski patrol. He's very smart but resisted everyone's efforts to make him go to uni because his mother has a mental illness and his older brother is a drug addict who comes around from time to time, to beg, borrow or steal. Amelia judges him, too, against her exact standards, and finds him failing, but by getting to know him learns that there's a lot more to him than she had first assumed. She's prickly, though. It's what makes their romance all the more enjoyable to watch (we're all voyeurs when it comes to romance!) - and it's a relief when Amelia gets something of her own, especially considering he's impervious to Charly.

Ezra is also the voice of reason that I felt most comfortable with - whether he said it aloud or not, you could tell he's thinking what we're thinking: that Amelia is too anxious about what people think, and her shame at her sister's "condition" is misguided, unfair and harsh. That she should be more supportive than condemning. That she should shake off her prejudices. But he doesn't say these things, only hints at them in words or expression so that we see more than Amelia does. He's too tactful, too smart and too genuinely interested in Amelia to get her back up by bluntly saying something (and in my experience, Canadians are very good at not saying things). I felt comfortable with Ezra because of his perspective, his reasoning; because he wasn't religious like Amelia, though he wasn't close-minded to possibilities; and because he grounded Amelia, made her rethink her emotional childishness, not by saying or doing anything, but by being Ezra, and because when we say such thoughts aloud we can hear how petty and stupid they sound. Ezra was Amelia's sounding board, in that sense.

"I'm not bitter," I said, not looking at him, but knowing he wasn't looking at me. "I just miss my life. My friends and my house and Charly, or the old Charly. And then a couple of weeks ago I found out I didn't get into Columbia, and that was my big plan, you know? My way out of Tremonton." Why was I telling him this? It was like the words were forcing their way out, like rising bubbles. "Instead I'm chained to my screwed up sister so everyone doesn't figure out how screwed up she really is."
Ezra opened his mouth, then closed it again, and in the silence of his hesitation I heard myself. I sounded girly. And stupid and needy. Blood rushed to my face, completing my humiliation. Blushing. I might as well have been naked.
"Who's everyone?"
"You said so everyone doesn't figure out. What does it matter what people think?"
I paused. "I guess..." He had no idea what it was like being the pastor's daughter, being Charly's sister, being constantly scrutinized. "It's less about what people think, more about her. I can't just abandon her."
"I get it."
Probably not.
"You don't think I do," he said, "but I do. She's your lost cause. You can't let her go." [pp.213-4]

Probably I was most angry at Amelia when, after finding out the truth of Charly's pregnancy, she becomes supportive: I was angry because of what it took to get her to be supportive, and communicative, and remorseful. In that scene, I never felt more keenly aware - and sympathetic - for what Charly had been going through, and how alone she'd been all this time, when what she'd really needed was Amelia's support. I wished she could've been a better sister, and Amelia wished it too. Like most lessons learned in life, that are worth learning, she learns too late for this instance, though it will stay with her forever.

I loved the setting. I was a bit wary at first, as a Canadian, but Martinez had gentle fun with the stereotypes and you can see that she loves her home province still, even though she lives in Florida (she says she's allergic to the cold, and while I don't quite know what that looks like, I can sympathise - the cold is awful, though so is the humidity in summer). I've never been to the Rockies, and I don't think I'm going to get the chance to either, before I return to Australia next year. But life in Banff, as described, felt somewhat familiar - perhaps because everywhere in Canada that gets this kind of winter feels the same!

Amelia learns a tough lesson over the course of the story, including that she's not the anchor for her sister that she always thought she was - a position she resented, and yet without it she feels set adrift. The point of the story is for Amelia to learn to live her life for her own sake, not other people's. It is a wonderfully written look at sibling conflict and growing up with a realistically flawed protagonist. It also gently nudged at the way people often do things that they think is best for other people without really asking or understanding the issue at hand - both Amelia and her grandmother are adept at this - and how good intentions can still be damaging. It is a story of many layers and more than one theme, not least of which is the stereotypes surrounding teen pregnancy, how blindly trusting young people can be, and how dangerous that is. Thought-provoking and engaging, The Space Between Us is well worth reading.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
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