Golden by Jessi Kirby
Published: 2013, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library book
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But it seems to me that the experiences that stay with you, the things you'll always remember, aren't the ones you can force, or go looking for. I've always thought of those things as the ones that somehow find you.
Although I did spend some time lamenting over the fact that Golden did not even become present in my library's catalog until a day after it was published, being forced to wait for this book's publication gave me the chance to first read Kirby's debut, Moonglass. Reading Moonglass first, and then Golden only two weeks later, afforded me the rare opportunity of being able to witness Kirby's growth as an author, which was amazing. Golden is ultimately a much stronger story than Moonglass is and is certainly deserving of the hype.
Courtesy of her poet father, Parker Frost has grown up appreciating the poetry Robert Frost, who may in fact be a distant relation. But although she can recite all of his poems and is well-equipped to enter in any discussion about "The Road Less Traveled," Parker herself has always preferred the well-trodden path, the path guaranteed to give results. It's due to this philosophy that has allowed her to excel at school, get accepted to Stanford, and be in the running for her town's most prestigious scholarship, the Cruz-Farnetti Scholarship. It's also due to this philosophy that Parker has always played by the rules and kept it safe.
As the end of the school year approaches, Parker's final duty as a TA for Mr. Kinney, an English teacher, is to return the journals written by graduating seniors ten years past. Based on a line from Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day," Mr. Kinney asks his seniors to consider the question "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" and write about the dreams and goals they have for their futures. While in the process of finding mailing addresses for the seniors of ten years past, Parker comes across Julianna Farnetti's journal. Julianna Farnetti and her boyfriend Shane Cruz both died on the night of their high school graduation but live on in the town through memories and the scholarship made in their name. Although she knows she should simply return the journal to Mr. Kinney, Parker finds that she cannot do that, that she's far too interested in hearing what Julianna had to say. And so begins Parker's first infraction, the first decision she makes for herself.
Through my reviews I've made it abundantly clear that I am not a fan of multiple narrators. Golden is, however, an exception. The majority of the story is narrated in first-person present by Parker. A significant percentage of the story is also told through Julianna's entries in her senior project journal. Parker and Julianna have distinct personalities, and yet they're not all that different underneath. Both are "golden girls," Julianna known for her perfect relationship with Shane and Parker known for her academic achievements. Both girls feel the need to please others, putting the desires of everyone else above their own. And, near the end of their senior years, both begin to push against the lives they've been given, searching for something more.
The relationship and understanding that Parker forms with Julianna is easily the most important and defining aspect of Golden, but Kirby also focuses on the importance of family relationships, friendships, and even romantic relationships. As with Moonglass, all of the protagonist's other relationships pale in comparison to the main one, and yet they're also integral to Parker's growth. Her friendship with Kat and the tentative feelings she has for Trevor help show Parker the importance of allowing others to help you grow. Her relationship with her mother, fraught with tension and misunderstanding, represents yet another facet of Parker's growth. They help define her, Parker comes to realize, not only because she allows them to, but because she wants them to.
As wonderful as it was to witness Parker's growth, witnessing Julianna's growth was much more difficult. But Parker and readers are reading Julianna's thoughts with the knowledge of what happens almost directly after Julianna handed in her journal. She graduated high school and that very night a freak snowstorm caused her and Shane to drive off the edge of a cliff and disappear into the dark frozen waters of a nearby lake, their bodies never recovered. Julianna's entries are rather depressing when viewed in that light, and yet they're absolutely integral to Parker's development. Without Julianna's entries to make her contemplate her own life and choices thus far, it's likely that Parker's life would have continued just as before, and that Parker would eventually lose the ability to redefine herself as she grew older.
The entire novel questions what happens when one is poised on the brink. During their last few days of high school, both Parker and Julianna are forced to make some hard choices about their lives. The novel speaks to all of us, whenever we must are faced with choices that have the potential to change who we are into who we want to become. Do we take the tried and true path, adjusting our desires to fit with the desires of so many others before us? Or are we brave, boldly forging ahead to find new and uncharted dreams to chase?
So much of this book is about doing something different and unexpected that I did have a slight issue with how expected I found the ending to be. The overall mystery surrounding Julianna's death was also not difficult to figure out, but learning about Julianna is how Parker is able to come to certain conclusions about herself, so I was not too bothered by the predictability of that plot point. The ending made complete sense within the context of all that has happened until that point but it still felt a bit...obvious? Perhaps I'm being overly critical, however, as the story really couldn't have ended any other way.
Jessi Kirby is not afraid to post hard questions for her characters (and through them her readers) to answer. Insightful and poignant, Kirby's novel addresses the classic challenge all people face when trying to navigate the divide between who they are and who they wish to become.
Rating: 4 stars