The People We Keep
By Allison Larkin
Gallery Books: August 3, 2021
368 pages, $27.00
April Sawicki is a 16-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter living in a motorhome with no engine in the tiny town of Little River. She is neglected by her feckless father, who has moved in with his girlfriend and her young son across town. She attends school sporadically and works at the local diner, whose big-hearted owner, Margo, is something of a surrogate mother to her. And she’s found a way to hotwire her elderly neighbor’s car so she can drive to a bar to perform at an open mic night.
Other than Margo and her boyfriend Matty, she is friendless, the town’s outcast. She is sweet and talented but at loose ends about how to make her musical dreams come true. What will become of her in her little village in upstate New York? She realizes that staying with Matty, with his lack of ambition and imagination, is a dead end. A fight with her father on a freezing November night leads to an impulsive decision to pack up her few belongings, borrow the neighbor’s car, and get the hell out of town.
April’s decision to stop for the night at an empty campground in Ithaca is fortuitous. She happens upon Café Decadence, a coffee bar run by Goth-punk Carly. Soon she’s convinced Carly to hire her – she worked at a diner, after all – and a regular customer who teaches at the college takes her in once he learns she’s homeless.
I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot than that (and there’s much more). The People We Keep is an alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking story of April’s struggle to create a meaningful, stable life. She encounters open-hearted people who help her and mean-spirited people who take advantage of her. Like any 16-year-old, she is wary of others most of the time, but in moments of need she sometimes places her trust in the wrong people.
Following April’s journey is a pleasure because you can’t help but root for her to catch a break. A series of unfortunate events, combined with her need to play her music, lead her to hit the road across the eastern U.S. But The People We Keep is not just an episodic novel about her travels and the people she meets along the way. Larkin has crafted an increasingly complex story about being your true self, creating your own family, and finding the place where you belong. The plot and the eccentric characters will make you laugh and cry (and occasionally grimace), and you’ll feel a little more hopeful about things when you’re done.
April’s odyssey from Ithaca and back again is a moving story of a young woman’s rebirth into a completely different life.