This is one of those times when I’m really thankful for Book of the Month. For some reason, The People We Keep isn’t a book I’ve really heard mentioned anywhere else. If it hadn’t been one of BotM’s options, I might have never heard of it, much less picked it up. I’m so incredibly thankful that I did, though. The People We Keep is a heartbreakingly beautiful story that perfectly balances sorrow and joy. With a diverse cast of larger-than-life characters and a protagonist that I not only rooted for but wished I could pluck from the pages and adopt, this book filled my heart to the bursting point and gave me an even greater appreciation for all of the wonderful people in my own life.
“We have people we get to keep, who won’t ever let us go. And that’s the most important part. That’s what’s true.”
April is 16 when she plays her first gig and decides to drop out of high school, all within 24 hours. Her mom left when April was just a kid, and her dad is building a new family while trying to forget that his daughter even exists. With only her dad’s ex-girlfriend to miss her, April decides to hit the road. I absolutely adore April. She’s a beautifully developed character, and watching her change and grow over the course of the novel almost felt like watching helplessly as my child grew up, with no way for me to reach her. She suffered some serious hardship, and I think Larkin did a wonderful job balancing resilience and heartache, allowing April to be both jaded and optimistic in the same breath. This dichotomy made her such a believable character, as I think that is how most of us face tough situations, with a mix of cynicism and cautious hope. That blend just feels so honest to real life. There’s plenty of ugliness, but there’s beauty, too, if you look.
“I want to believe there will still be newness in the world for me. That it’s not all faded and dusty.”
I was immediately drawn into this story by the first chapter, when April is playing at an open mic night for the first time. Larkin’s descriptions of how April felt about her music, how it felt to sing and be at one with her guitar, how much different it was playing songs she wrote for an audience instead of alone in her dilapidated motorhome, were captivating. I always love books where music is important, and here it’s almost a character in its own right. If Larkin isn’t a musician herself, she must be close to someone who is. I loved April’s songwriting process and the value she placed on her instrument.
“If someone changes so much that they’re barely the same person, who are you even missing?”
The various settings of this book were all excellent, none moreso than Ithaca. It turns out this is because Larkin attended Ithaca College. Her love for the town shines so brightly in this book. But the other locales featured in the story were also well presented, and felt like important elements of the plot instead of randomly chosen locations in which a story could happen. I kind of hate that a book set in the 1990s is now considered historical fiction, but that’s the price of getting older, I suppose. But the prices and payphones and lack of some newer technology all served the story very well. Setting this book in the 90s was exactly the right choice. I also loved visiting all of the bars and coffeeshops, seeing their similarities contrasting their wild differences. Even April’s car was an important setting, which I thought was a fun writing decision on Larkin’s part.
“I say that it’s amazing how much you can miss people you only got to be with for one tiny perfect bit of time; how a place where you barely got to live can be the closest thing you’ve ever had to home.”
While I loved the settings, and the music, and the plot that tore at my heart, the crowning achievement of this novel is its characters. I’ve already discussed how much I loved April, but the supporting cast was just as wonderful. Everywhere April went, she somehow found people who were odd and diverse and plagued with their own problems, but were at the same time so full of love to give her. Larkin wisely inserted a few characters who didn’t fit this description, which just made the goodness of the other characters blaze even brighter. If I were asked to choose one book to serve as a perfect example of the found family trope, this would be the one I chose. I wish these people were real, and that I could take a roadtrip to meet them all.
“I wonder if maybe all you do is meet people and lose them. And their smile fades the further you go, because you have to carry the space they leave…. And maybe the space gets bigger and heavier every year.”
The People We Keep captured my heart on the first page and kept its grip tight even after I read the final scene. Larkin is a gifted author, and I’m so glad to have come into contact with her work in general and this book in particular. If you love a found family, or music, or a phenomenally developed protagonist and supporting cast, or all of the above, you should definitely read this book.
(Side note: If you’re an audiobook person, The People We Keep is narrated by the always phenomenal Julia Whelan!)
You can order this book from: Blackwell’s | Bookshop.org (Support independent bookstores!) | Amazon US | Amazon UK | Audible | Libro.fm (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)