A stunning tale of suburbia's darker underbelly by the critically acclaimed author of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Stephanie Keuhnert.
Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara McNaughton likes best. Not the clichéd ones where a diva hits her dramatic high note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies, but the true ballads: the punk rocker or the country crooner reminding their listeners of the numerous ways to screw things up. In high school, Kara helped maintain the "Stories of Suburbia" notebook, which contained newspaper articles about bizarre, tragic events from suburbs all over America, and personal vignettes that Kara dubbed "ballads" written by her friends in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. But Kara never wrote her own ballad. Before she could figure out what her song was about, she left town suddenly at the end of her junior year. Now, four years later, Kara returns to her hometown to face the music, needing to revisit the disastrous events that led to her leaving, in order to move on with her life.
Intensely powerful and utterly engaging, Ballads of Suburbia explores the heartbreaking moments when life changes unexpectedly, and reveals the consequences of being forced to grow up too soon.
1. “The ballad of suburbia: give me loud to drown out the silence,” Kara says as she bonds with Liam over live music. Silence is a major theme in the novel. Discuss the ways in which Kara and her friends cope with the silence. Why is it necessary for them to drown it out?
2. Kara and Maya’s friendship is initially formed because they recognize each other’s punk rock style. Identify some of the other moments where the main characters search for social and cultural markers on the road toward friendship and romantic interests. Do these initial and sometimes superficial connections often lead to lasting relationships? Why or why not?
3. Kara, Wes, and Liam move away from the “safety” of suburbia to heal. After Quentin’s death, Kara says the parents are in “suburban witch-hunt mode.” What does this imply about the conventional ideas about the suburbs? What does this say about the significance of appearances? Are appearances more important to the parents, or their children? In what ways?
4. Maya, Kara, Christian, and Liam all fantasize about escaping to Florida. Figuratively and literally, in what ways do the characters escape? What are they escaping from?
5. Scoville Park becomes everyone’s stomping ground. What does Scoville Park represent? How does the perception of this place evolve from the beginning of the novel to the end?
6. In Adrian’s ballad he writes, “The one good thing about coming from no one is there’s no one to answer to.” Does this account for Adrian’s unattached behavior? Is this an excuse?
7. Many of the ballads are declarations of pain and quests for answers. Discuss the various characters before and after their ballads. Do you feel more sympathetic to the characters once you know their individual histories? Do you become more involved in who they are? Whose ballad would you have liked to read that wasn’t included?
8. The teenage characters spend a lot of energy trying to avoid ending up like their parents. Do you think any of them succeed? Particularly in Maya’s case, does attempting to run away from her mother’s past cause her to run right into history?
9. Because much of the story is narrated by Kara and the ballads are first person accounts, the adults rarely seem relevant, and are mostly included as sources of pain. Do you think this portrayal of the parents is fair?
10. Compare Wes and Cass’s relationship with Kara and Liam’s. How do they mirror each other? How are they different?
11. Quentin’s and Maya’s deaths seem to add to the silence of suburbia. When Kara ODs and asks Liam to hold on to the notebook to protect her friends’ ballads out of fear that the parents might read it, is she protecting her friends or only adding to the silence?
12. Do you think the parents have a right to know? Did Kara make the right decision?
13. How is depression portrayed in the novel? How does it affect characters other than those who are directly dealing with it?
14. Kara expresses her difficulty making friends, saying “I can’t get past the feeling that I don’t belong.” The mosh pit is portrayed as both a place of violence and camaraderie. What is the significance of the mosh pit in the novel? What other places are similar? How does the mosh pit help Kara get over her crowd insecurities?
15. Both Stacey and Kara lose the presence of their fathers, physically and emotionally. Compare and contrast how that affects their own romantic relationships with men. Does one make better choices over the other?
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
1. Listen to your favorite song and create your own ballad. Or, write that ballad you thought was missing or rewrite the ballad of your favorite character.
2. Whether you’re from the suburbs or the city, start your own collection of quirky newspaper clippings.
3. Visit the author’s website at www.stephaniekuehnert.com and listen to the playlist she’s made to go along with the novel. Try making your own mix CD out of the various songs and bands that are mentioned in Ballads of Suburbia to take with you to your next book club meeting. It’ll set the mood—and keep your ears tuned to the lyrics to pick up some of the author’s influences.
Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and lives in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Ballads of Surburbia and I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Learn more at StephanieKuehnert.com.