Review by Louise Brecht
Inkyard press, Harlequin Books S. A., April 2019
352 pages, hardcover, $18.99 USD, $23.99 CDN, 978-1-335-01235-7
Ages 14+, Grades 9+
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance
…I wanted to explain but it was so hard to get out. The words were stuck, like I’d have to hock a loogie just to expel them. “It messed me up, the breakup. Aaron broke my heart and when he went to a party with his new girlfriend, I got stupid. Drank, met a guy, hooked up. Boom, baby. I don’t even know where he is now. The baby daddy, I mean. Aaron is probably rotting in hell. Or, at least, I hope he is.”
Change is rocking Sara Rodriguez’s world. The half-Latina academic all-star expected to spend her senior year of high school fleshing out Ivy League options for post-secondary studies, not to have her plans dashed by the consequences of one reckless rendezvous in May. Her one-night stand’s first name is Jack, but he hasn’t shared much more than his genes, and Sara has no way to trace him or let him know. She does have support for her pregnancy and the decisions she will have to make. Her single mother, Astrid, and her widowed grandmother or Mormor, are both squarely in her corner and their unity of purpose is a relief until an abrupt and painful move to Mormor’s home in Stonington, Connecticut, leaves her reeling.
Granted, Sara’s new digs are only ten minutes away from where they used to live and she’s still close to her “wifey” and BFF, Devi Abrams. She also no longer has to face the painful presence of her ex-squeeze, Aaron. But she has to master a new school with a growing belly, different teachers, and a challenging curriculum. More than that, she has to find her place as a Latina in a predominantly white suburban student body that will be, Sara knows, openly judgmental once her condition becomes obvious. Falling for someone else just isn’t in the cards—until she meets Romani Leaf Leon. She’s as drawn to his neat black ponytail and deep brown eyes as she is to the practiced ease with which he draws her into his delightfully eclectic circle of friends. Should she tell him she’s going to have a baby or not? Sara fumbles with the facts despite seldom being at a loss for words.
Seventeen-year-old Sara is a scintillating first-person narrator whose exquisite delivery owes at least as much to her acutely observant and wryly humorous persona as it does to author Eva Darrow’s plot structure. Belly Up is divided into three sections that are as mimetic of human gestational trimesters as her sum total of thirty-eight chapters, one for each week of Sara’s pregnancy. The format amplifies Sara’s dilemma at the same time as it grants her the time and space to expand its parameters, and the story she relates is far from thematically limited to an unplanned baby—or even to the poignant prospects of a budding romance.
Sara’s absentee father has gifted her with little more than his Hispanic surname, her curly, dark hair, darker eyes, and curvy figure—traits that clearly differentiate her from her “pure milk” peers. Racial prejudices provoke Sara’s ire almost as much as bias against sexual minorities. She makes short work of admitting indecision about her own bisexuality—to Leaf and to Morgan and Erin, his equally-if-not-more-sexually-fluid companions. And once Devi locates Jack, Sara is as plagued by his parents’ angry denial of their son’s responsibilities as she is by Jack’s reluctance to confront them with the truth of their tryst.
Her primary conflict, however, is the pregnancy itself and all the physical changes that are happening, as well as agonizing self-doubts and fears. Sara relies on the love, support, and guidance of her mother and her Mormor to greet and meet her challenges, and she does so with the kind of refreshing candour and deliberate honesty that bring their strong-minded Swedish characters to life. I giggled at Mormor’s shoe-throwing antics, sympathized with Astrid’s closet smoking habit, and laughed out loud at the prenatal advice that Sara simply does not want to hear. I was also moved by their constancy, by the nature of the family/female bond that suggests Sara’s ability to survive and to find new love(s) in a life beyond heartbreak—if only she chooses to do so.
Belly Up is far more than a cautionary tale. It is a bildungsroman with a twist or two, artfully crafted to explore contemporary young adult realities and relationships through the timeless conundrum of Sara’s accidental pregnancy. Her decided defiance of the status quo is evident as the story opens. I was hooked by the top of page two, and yes, I admit that Eva Darrow’s studied balance between her protagonist/narrator’s exposition and dialogue, observations and actions/reactions, kept me turning all the other pages long after I should have turned off the lights. Sara’s voice is as captivating as her gritty determination to forge her own way in spite of her challenges. Its characters echoed in my mind long after I closed the book and I still wonder, from time to time, what Sara’s fictional future holds. I would welcome the chance to find out.
Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.