From page one author Allison Larkin’s The People We Keep is a masterclass in showing rather than telling. Her delicately observant details provide enough clues that grab the reader’s attention without going overboard which makes for an authentic story. And, even before page one, Larkin provides one of the best book dedications I’ve ever read.
Our protagonist is April – the oldest of souls. She is abandoned by her parents which informs how her extremely tough life unfolds. Over the course of three parts and three years (1994-1997), she is simultaneously trying to break the cycle of abandonment/abuse while finding reasons to leave the people she loves along the way. “The whole reason people like me is that I always leave a little too soon.” That sentence is untrue (the reader knows her thought process is untrue but April does not) and tragic, but also very real.
As a parent, this book broke my heart repeatedly because I can’t imagine leaving my family. In fact, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them so it makes me sad to read that April never had the opportunity to be a kid or experience real love from a parent. “It means everything to me to have plans further ahead than the next twenty minutes.” Instead, she doesn’t finish high school, leaves the town she lived in her whole life, and finds herself starting over again and again. April also lives out of her car, doesn’t know where her next meal or hot shower is coming from, and makes ends meet playing guitar when she can. She loves and leaves because she thinks she has to – not because she wants to – and eventually it catches up to her.
In terms of content, music plays a significant role throughout the narrative as April gigs in and travels through multiple states and talks about songs as if they are her lifeline. And they are. Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, among others, are name-checked. The bits of music scattered throughout provides a welcoming and consistent thread as records, cassette tapes, guitar prices, and song lyrics become small but important details. “I fought hard for every bit of ground I’ve covered, and to have a notebook full of places that will book me – it means something.” April thinks of footsteps in terms of beats and even people’s voices as sounding like instruments. Clearly the author is a music fan or maybe even a musician. “I’m singing songs about a parallel me.”
- So much real estate is dedicated to April talking hot showers. I get it – those are few and far between for her which of course is heartbreaking – but sometimes that information is repetitive and distracting.
- It’s important that this narrative takes place in the 90s because so much of what she encounters (in terms of finding people, technology, etc.) wouldn’t be an issue in present day. There are also situational reminders about how music used to not be as accessible as it is now.
- We all need someone like Margo in our lives.
- Even though April is a songwriter, she consistently has trouble finding the words she needs to express herself and struggles with knowing what to say in many situations – most likely because she is so young. “I don’t know how to explain myself.”
- Being abandoned but also not wanting people to appear out of nowhere. She doesn’t understand what she doesn’t know – not her fault.
- Fathers abandoning children.
- Wanting to belong and having something that is hers.
“Her voice is bigger than the rest of her.”
“She pulls sounds from those strings that I didn’t think were possible, like she’s playing two guitars or three.”
“trying hard to cling to the calm”
“He doesn’t mean a lot of things, but that doesn’t put anything back together.”
“I’ve never been around someone who didn’t have at least a little bit of reckless bubbling under their skin.”
“I wonder if maybe all you do is meet people and lose them and your smile fades the further you go because you have to carry the space they leave.”
“What I want the most is much more simple. What I want most is a life that’s all mine.”
“I could paint his smile in a song.”
“His eyes are sad in a way I recognize and his face has lines in places that tell me he’s smiled a bunch, but worried more.”
“hold on to the heart of a song”
“The sounds of getting started – those are my favorite sounds.”
“Some things get written into your body and your mind can’t reason them away.”
“Maybe you need to mourn who they weren’t. Maybe that’s what you’re here for now.”
April about her son Max: “He’s already my favorite thing that ever happened to me.”