I used to devour YA Contemporary novels, but the older I become, the harder I am to impress by this once beloved genre. I’ve really struggled over the course of my five years of book blogging to read and enjoy YA Contemporary novels, and at one point, I would have been more than happy to avoid the genre entirely. But, I have to admit, this has been a redeeming year; I’ve read a handful of excellent Contemporaries, and I read another novel that just might be making it into my top ten books this year– the Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz. Beautifully written and atmospheric, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go is an equally intense and introspective novel about love and loss and finding one’s home in this world. (P.S. There are some spoilers below this line, so read at your own risk).
Released: September 12, 2016
Publisher: Elephant Rock Books
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Competitive climber Cara Jenkins feels most at home high off the ground, clinging to a rock wall by her fingertips. She’s enjoyed a roaming life with her mountaineering parents, making the natural world her jungle gym, the writings of Annie Dillard and Henry David Thoreau her textbooks. But when tragedy strikes on an Ecuadoran mountaintop, Cara’s nomadic lifestyle comes to an abrupt halt.
Starting over at her grandparents’ home in suburban Detroit, Cara embarks on a year of discovery, uncovering unknown strengths, friendships, and first love. Cara’s journey illustrates the transformative power of nature, love and loss, and discovering that home can be far from where you started.
The novel opens a world away from my own– not just because main character, Cara Jenkins, is in Ecuador, where Lenz captures the sights and sounds and smells so well– but also because the story opens amid a junior rock climbing competition. I had no idea such events even existed.
The tension is palpable as Cara mentally prepares for her climb. She’s trying to block out the fact that her famous, mountaineering family is ascending one of the most treacherous peeks in South America instead of supporting her at the competition. She’s also trying not to feel overwhelmed next to friends (who are also her competitors), who are using the event as a publicity stunt to gain fame and sponsors. She just wants to escape for a moment with her thermos of hot tea to think about rock wall she is about to climb.
Then, once Cara’s world was knocked off-kilter during the competition, there was no going back for me.
This book dealt with some pretty complex ideas, which I didn’t expect. I mean, it’s been several weeks since I finished reading The Art of Holding On and Letting Go, and I still do not know how I feel about Cara’s parents shipping her to the suburbs of Detroit, while they remain abroad to grieve the loss of Uncle Max. My immediate reaction was that Cara’s parents were selfish! Selfish that they would force Cara away from home for the sake of normalcy. Selfish for making Cara deal with the grief and loss all on her own. Selfish for making her worry about their safety as they cope in the only way they know how– by climbing even more dangerous mountains. I couldn’t help but think, “How could they just abandon her like that?!”
But I know…I know it is not that simple. Everyone copes with loss in their own ways, and Lenz explores that idea throughout The Art of Holding On and Letting Go.
Lenz writes a rich cast of characters, and I found myself rooting for all of them. Like goth girl, Kaitlyn, who was one of the first to welcome Cara to school (even though goth girls are supposed to be mean and intimidating [or at least that’s what everyone thought of me back in the day] and even though she has a deformed hand that tends to make ignorant people uncomfortable). Or, like punk kid, Nick, who is a really sensitive young man and is determined to see Cara climb again and sweep Kaitlyn off her feet. Then there is Jake, an eighth-grader from the sketchy parts of Pontiac, who found refuge in rock climbing and basketball; it’s so unsuspecting, but this youngster plays a pivotal role in challenging Cara to climb again. Even Cara’s grandmother wiggled her way into my heart once I realized her curmudgeonly and critical personality was one rooted in fear and anxiety regarding the people she loved.
Readers have the opportunity to follow the transformation of each character–primary and secondary– which I think is a rare treat. Portraying so much character growth in just a couple hundred pages could have easily become cumbersome. But, Lenz knows her characters so well that she makes writing well-rounded characters seem like a breeze.
The Art of Holding on and Letting Go is a novel you need in your life. It’s an excellent debut filled with beautiful prose and compelling characters. But what impressed me the most was Cara’s passion for rock climbing. First, I’ve never read a novel about rock climbing before, so I found it to be especially fascinating. It became this obstacle that was both literal and metaphoric, which was kind of perfect, really. Second, reading about rock climbing is invigorating! After finishing the novel, I probably spent an hour searching for hiking trails around the mid-Michigan area because I wanted to reconnect with nature like Cara did. (Mind you, I haven’t actually thrust myself back into nature yet, but it’s also been unnaturally hot this summer. My preference has been not to move very much because I can’t handle this kind of weather.)
(P.S. You can totally tell Kristin Bartley Lenz is from Michigan. She wrote that the 45 degree Springtime weather was “balmy”, which is exactly how I describe the weather when the snow starts to melt.)