I picked up This Much Space by K.K. Hendin because it was purported to be about a fat young woman who loves fashion and has a lil romance with a baseball player. A couple of things I didn’t know: 1) this is the second book in a series called Twelve Beats in a Bar, and 2) This Much Space would be my first new adult novel!
I did not know this book focused on college students, and I must admit I was relieved that it wasn’t another young adult story! Twelve Beats in a Bar is the name of an acapella group of 12 female college students. One member, Haley, was the focus of the first book, which is where I assume all 12 characters were introduced. Unfortunately, because there are 12 young women in the group, there was no getting to know any of them in depth. Yet, had I read the first novel in the series, I doubt I would have better understood twelve characters.
One scene made me feel annoyed. The acapella group is going to sing at an event with a theme of awareness of other cultures. The secretary of the group asks what languages they know. We get answers: English, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu, Navajo, French, Haitian French, Russian, and Japanese. Given that they’re students at a state school in the Midwest (I attended one myself), I felt like Hendin was off the mark. Better yet, she could have had half as many singers and focused on their personalities instead of telling readers there are twelve diverse women.
The focus of the book isn’t the Twelve Beats, though. The stars are Olivia and Thierry — all chapters are in first-person point of view, but alternate between them. Olivia is a fat freshman on her second semester. She has a horrible job in a high-end lingerie store, which she hopes will bolster her resume, but really she’s organizing bras in the basement. It takes her forever to realize neither sorting clothes nor a business major put her in direct contact with the fashion world. She sews, knits, crafts, and sings with the Twelve Beats. Thierry is on the baseball team, a sophomore with a Brazilian father and Japanese mother (more diversity!). Both end up at a party where Thierry’s roommate calls Olivia fat, and just when he’s about to say something, she defends herself:
Listen, asswipe, I know you were talking to me. I’m the only fat one here. So what do you want, or were you just saying hi?
Thierry likes her personality and body immediately — and he’s not afraid to admit to the reader when he has a boner (“No boners in a public bakery. Not cool, man,” Thierry tells himself). Never once does Hendin send Theirry down a path of shame or uncertainty for his attraction to Olivia. I was so impressed by this. They have sex and go on a date and flirt and OMG. Once again, I’ve got a book in which a character asks, “Can I kiss you?” and I just love this trend. If people had asked permission to kiss when I was dating, I would have felt less nervous on dates!
But a phone call from his dad saying he lost his job sends Theirry spiraling. He’s had problems in the past with major depression. It is always right there, especially given that baseball scholarships are quickly pulled if an athlete wavers slightly in his abilities — football scholarships are the sure thing in the Midwest. Hendin really puts you in the mind of a depressed suicidal cutter, so if you don’t think that’s something you can or should read, please don’t.
I really like that Olivia is a hero without needing to save a whole city or the world (like I see in young adult novels and superhero movies). When she learns that no one has seen Theirry in ages, she finds him in his dorm room in a terrible state and must decide how to approach him. Can you imagine being 19 and taking someone you don’t know that well — but think maybe you love — to eventually get help and admit that they are a cutter and may commit suicide? I was glued to the pages and finished the last half of This Much Space long after midnight. Every bit felt sensitive, realistic, and carefully written. The characters were whole and broken, strong and scared, and real.
There were no parents involved in Olivia’s heroics. That’s scary, too. Parents are too involved in their college students’ lives, but where is there a separation? When are students afforded privacy? Thierry knows his folks will find out that his mental health issues are aggravated when the bill comes from the insurance company, but their feelings don’t matter in this story. Thierry and Olivia are at an age of transition, which I appreciated. College students often aren’t given space to be responsible beyond their homework and laundry, so I liked that Hendin pushed Olivia and Thierry.
Despite there being too many Beats, perhaps an author trying too hard for a diverse cast, Olivia’s character being a bit wonky early on from Theirry’s perspective, and the swearing you’ll hear at a state school, I ate up this novel and felt warm and good after I read it.