book review: The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

The People We Keep
 by Allison Larkin

Overview: April spent her childhood neglected and had to learn to stand alone as a young teenager. She starts working in a diner before she can even legally work, and by the time she's 16, she's ready to leave behind the constant disappointment of her hometown of Little River. So she steals a car and skips town, starting her nomadic life. She lands in Ithaca, starting a new chapter by adding a few years to her age to fit in with the college students that fill the town. When her secret is at risk of coming to light, though, she skips town and spends the next few years playing her music at various cafes, driving from town to town, and forming bonds with new people in every place. The final twist draws her world back together and makes every chapter of her past collide. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 The characters are well drawn in a broad sense. We know a lot about a large cast of characters, and this book is extremely into details, so we feel like we know these people inside and out. The entire point of the story, as indicated by the title, is that the people we meet define our lives, so it makes sense that the entire framework of the story is built around highlighting the power and fragility of relationships. 

April is tough and resilient but also scared and skittish towards the world. We start the book by seeing the relationships that destroyed April's trust in people through both her parents ultimately abandoning her. Then, she gets to Ithaca and starts to discover the meaning of found family as she finds a home at the cafe she works at with the fellow employees and customers. These relationships are the most vibrant of the entire book, but they also teach April a lesson she'll have to learn time and time again over the course of a book – any relationship built on a lie is at substantial risk. The rest of the book and the characters we meet in these parts never feel as bright as they did in Ithaca, and it doesn't seem like April ever experiences the same amount of growth again. It's hard to get into the individual characters and relationships built here without spoilers, but they all serve to prove to April over and over again that unconditional love can and does exist. 

Plot: 4 The short, spoiler free version of my thoughts on the plot is that the book is interesting and compelling. The focus is definitely the characters and relationships, but the fact that April is either always on the run or moving from place to place creates a lot of the plot momentum. It reads slow, though, from the author's love of minute details, but it does have a real sense of movement despite this. 

*Spoilers* Here's the thing with the plot: the story never gets better than the part that happens in Ithaca. it feels like that town and that set of characters is where the author's heart was, and it's the most compelling and interesting segment of the book. Unfortunately, it's the second quarter of the story, and the book feels like it flails a bit when April feels like she has to leave once again. My only issue with the Ithaca section is I feel morally torn about the entire thing. April lies to everyone and says she's 19 when she's really 16, which wouldn't be a huge deal except she's decided to become romantically involved with a guy in his late 20s, which would even be a bit weird if she was actually 19. While their relationship is painted as incredibly sweet, respectful, and even healing, I felt weird every time it melted my heart a little because the age dynamic was just so off. Also, having been 16 and currently being 19 (when I read the book), it's a hard 3 years to fudge convincingly. It felt like having a relationship with that intense and sketchy of an age gap wasn't done to make any grand point but simply happened because it would make her age coming out a major, major issue and thus force her to progress to the next place in the plot. 

This happens again later in the story when a few years later, April ends up pregnant. This just feels so unnecessary to April's story and progression, and I was confused by the choice except seeing it as an easy way to create drama when it happens. But, by the final chapters, it finally makes sense. April having a baby seemed to be the only way the author could think of to get characters from each disparate segment of April's life back in one room to support her. It eventually lives up the title showing that April did have at least one person from each phase that would rush back to her side to support her, but I just wish the author had figured out a different vehicle for this to happen because it truly felt deeply unfair to April and her journey to have it unfold in this way. 

Writing: 4 I can't figure out how I feel about the writing. I did finish most of the second half of the book in one day, but the dense nature of the writing made me not want to pick it up super consistently. It's molasses-like in a way, which can be both beautiful and tedious depending on your mood or the time. Even though we meet April at 16 and spend time with her until she's about 19, this book isn't YA. It makes a perfect point around YA voice and its importance. This is a book for adults about a young adult, and there's nothing in the subject matter that makes it that way. It's the author's choice of granular voice and removed feeling that creates that line for me. It doesn't feel visceral and pressing and immediate even as we do hear from April in first person. Instead, it feels icy and cold and spun from a completely different angle. 

I also did think it was interesting reading about a teenager in the '90s because it's a period that I hear about a ton but never got to experience. It's interesting to compare how wildly similar but also vastly different the recent past is from today. I imagine for many readers of this book it's meant as a nostalgia point, but for me, it was a cool point of discovery. 

I honestly don't know how to feel about this book in a general sense. I enjoyed it and thought that its take on the power of found relationships to be quite impactful, but at the same time, there's a lot of choices within the book and in how the story unfolds that frustrated me or left me indifferent. Honestly, I just wish that the entire book was a longer version of the first half. I want to see the alternate universe where April stays in Ithaca even if that means far less drama.

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

The Villa: book review

Memorial: book review

Pineapple Street: book review


  1. Absolutely agree with the ending. I need a longer story for the first part of the book.


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