In letters to a Texas death row inmate sent over the course of a school year, “Zoe” shares her story and immediately confesses to a murder. She chooses Mr. Stuart Harris because:
a) he’s someone she assumes can relate to her guilt (having murdered his wife) and
b) he’s not in a position to turn her in, because unlike Mr. Harris, “Zoe” got away with it.
Welcome to the premise of Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, this year’s Edgar award winner for the best young adult mystery.
Zoe relates both the giddy events of the previous year—meeting two young men at a house party and the twisty paths those relationships take—juxtaposed against her present life of parental drama, gnawing guilt and grief-stricken love.
The writing is rich in imagery and often beautifully expressive and the “torn between two lovers” plot will undoubtedly reel readers in. The mystery at the heart of the book is discovering which young man has died, and the author does a fair job keeping that secret pretty close to the vest. Most readers will probably jump to the correct conclusion on their own, in addition to deciding how culpable Zoe actually is in the death.
As the main character, Zoe doesn’t come off as entirely likable, though.
She lies, she cheats, she reacts in anger and then tries to justify it. Her voice is, at times, mature and understanding, but also incredibly naïve. Zoe is at her best when she’s interacting with her younger sisters whom she clearly loves.
An interesting side-plot involves Zoe’s parents, her deaf sister and dying granddad in a parallel exploration of guilt and culpability, one I found more interesting.
On reflection, the book had a moral, fatalistic tone that felt a bit heavy-handed to me. Having recently read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, I was well aware of unreliable and unlikable narrators. Compared to Cady in We Were Liars, Zoe is downright chipper! But while I found myself feeling more sympathetic to Cady in her ordeal, I became less so for Zoe as her story progressed. How moved one is by Annabel Pitcher’s novel will likely depend on how sympathetically Zoe is perceived.
That said, Ketchup Clouds has received many rave reviews (including a star from Kirkus) and now an Edgar award to boot! (Check here for all of this year’s Edgar nominees and winners.) There are descriptive passages in this book that are just brilliant and I do like epistolary novels. For fans of realistic fiction, relationship themes, and broken hearts, give it a try and give me your thoughts.
An exploration of love and betrayal, the selfish acts that can define one’s life and the ability to forgive oneself for them.