PopLurker would like to thank Holiday House for providing a sample copy of The People We Choose by Katelyn Detweiler in exchange for review. You can purchase your own wherever books are sold.
**Warning: Review Contains Spoilers**
Synopsis via Holiday House official website:
When 17-year-old Calliope meets her new neighbor Max, their connection is instantaneous, but the revelation of her sperm donor’s identity changes everything.
Calliope Silversmith has always had just two friends in her small Pennsylvania town, Ginger and Noah, and she’s fine with that. She’s never wanted anything more than her best friends, her moms, their house in the woods, and their family-run yoga studio—except maybe knowing who her sperm donor is. Her curiosity has been building for years, and she can finally find out this summer when she turns eighteen.
Then Max and his family move into the house across the woods from Calliope, and she immediately feels a special connection with her new neighbor, one that feels different than just friendship. The stability of her longtime trio wavers over the next few weeks as she and Max start to spend more time together.
But when Calliope makes contact with her sperm donor she learns a surprising truth: her donor is Max’s father. How is this even possible?
As she and Max struggle to redefine their friendship now that they know they’re half-siblings, Calliope realizes she has much to gain by recognizing and accepting that family is both the one she has been born into, and the one she chooses to make.
You know that feeling you get when you finish a book and it’s only then that you realize that you are (very much not) the intended audience?
Yeah– that’s what happened here.
The People We Choose by Katelyn Detweiler was perfectly engaging. The writing was fine and I consumed it with the same intense fervor as the characters in this book who were also constantly eating. No, but seriously– these people were constantly eating. To the point that it made me want to track Ms. Detweiler down on social media, shoot her a DM, and be like “Babe, are you okay? Do your characters all have binge eating issues?” I was sincerely worried about every teenager in this story by the amount of desserts they shoved down their faces at any given point. With well-written sensory details and rich descriptions of all…all…all of the food these people continuously ate throughout the entire narrative, I honestly felt full and even a little sick. And don’t get me wrong– I was a teenager who enjoyed copious eating! But by the end of the book I felt like I gained five pounds and I sincerely hoped that all of these kids brushed their teeth on the regular. This was a unique experience only felt after reading food descriptions in body-image centered books such as Jelly Belly, Blubber, and A Game of Thrones. This tangent aside, let’s move onto the book. I just needed to get that out because wowsers– these people really ate a lot in this book.
So, let’s return back to the “I am not the intended audience” part of the story. This book is wholesome AF. Sure, it is young YA, probably intended for 13-14 year olds and that part is fine because I can still read a book objectively through those eyes. I was such an escapist reader in those years of my life that I know how to suspend my disbelief and approach stories outside of my age range with that…sympathetic eye, I guess I’ll call it? But speaking from my point of view, which I have to do because this is my review of The People We Choose, it is again, very, very saccharine.
When I was 13-14, I was out of the closet bisexual. My coming out was met with physical and emotional violence. It was so traumatic that I never fully explored my sexuality spectrum and at 35, I am still paying for it. It sucked. On another personal level, my parents split up when I was 12-13, my dad bounced out for 12 years, and my mom was an agoraphobe who raised me and my sisters on her own. She loved in her own strange way. Drug experimentation was rampant in my world and community, as was casual sex and exploration. All in all– things were weird. And I think that my own weird life supersedes the wholesomeness of the world presented in The People We Choose so much, that it is hard to accept…any of it.
Let’s start with Calliope (how many people do you think read her name in their head as Cal-Lee-Ope because they don’t know who Calliope is? Plus Penelope Park? Get out of here) and her two moms. Yes, it is so important to normalize gay parents and gay relationships, especially happy and stable ones. I was amused by the two crunchy granola yoga moms in the deep, deep woods. It’s funny too, because I wrote a manuscript about a girl with two moms (one a hardass woman and the other a soft, feminine woman who bakes all the time) and I swear it was cut and paste. Meaning Katelyn Detweiler’s two moms were completely the same as my two moms and something about that amused me to no end. From there, we have Calliope’s two best womb buddies, Ginger and Noah. Ginger is a quirky blonde lesbian (we all wish we knew her in high school!) and Noah is perfect and in love with Calliope because she’s his forever girl and he feels comfortable around her. For Calliope, this means brotherly love and for Noah, this is romantic love. We all have our kinks. Let’s move on.
The story takes place the summer before Senior Year in high school and everything changes when Max and his little sister Marlow move into the Old Jackson House next door, which is a five minute walk through the deep, deep woods. Max and Calliope form a quick bond, which leads to dating, and a few kisses. As we see in the summary/synopsis above, Calliope finds out that her sperm doner is Max’s dad and now the two have to re-define their relationship.
I know, I know– the first boy you kiss and now so much trauma.
Here is where I will dissect this book. Because for a premise so tragically Shakespearian, the stakes are incredibly low.
I really wish the reveal that Calliope and Max as half siblings wasn’t on the back of the book. Because now we know the entire time that it’s coming and therefore we know that Calliope and Max won’t get that close. It would be too daring and not on brand for this story. But if there was something in here that made us yearn for Calliope and Max to be together and then we found out this horrible reveal, we would be part of the tragedy and really feel sadness for these characters. On this flip side, if we knew that they were half siblings because the back of the book said so and then they had sex or something while we the reader looked on in horror, just so sad for these two people who have no idea what terror they are engaging it, it would raise the stakes. But it doesn’t– it stays in an exceptionally bland middle ground filled with mood swings and tantrums.
The whole book plays out like a Lifetime Movie of the Week, which I’m sure will relieve many people or parents buying this book for a young reader or one with very high morals and values. This book is so completely innocent which I’m sure makes it very appealing for many. But not for me– it is a slice of life that doesn’t taste very good. Again, the writing is engaging so there is nothing wrong there, but the characters just aren’t people I’m really cheering for. My favorite characters are probably Calliope’s moms (Margo and Stella) and her lesbian best friend Ginger. Noah is a mopey-moper and Max is really passive-aggressive pushy. In fact, throughout the book both Noah and Max throw these manipulative tantrums at Calliope that are sort of brushed off time and time again. It’s a battle of strong female characters versus these underdeveloped whiny men.
Speaking of men, we have Donor Dad of the Year Elliot Jackson as a centralized force here. He is Max and Marlow’s dad as well as Calliope’s sperm donor/biological father. I really don’t like how the entire story is him psychologically tormenting his black wife. Yes, I am taking it there. He’s emotionally and physically absent and apparently cheats on Joanie all the time, making her tired, stress, and she’s losing weight. I don’t know, it didn’t sit right with me. The weirdest part is that every time Elliot showed up in the story, he was super normal. Just a regular guy hanging out with his family who is having trouble prioritizing. But from Max’s endless tantrums and scream fests, we hear about him being a terrible and negligent dad who cheats on his mom and is destroying her emotionally. Maybe I missed something, but what I heard versus what I saw just didn’t match up.
The story ends with Max and Calliope getting ready to go to college together at the same school, their relationship transformed into this super innocent and wholesome one where all his family and her family get together for holiday dinners and bbqs and shit. Calliope goes on a Hallmark style monologue about not getting to choose who you’re born to but you can choose your people, and so on. It’s fine, just unbelievable and schmaltzy. And to people who had truly troubled upbringings, this slice of life “problem story where nothing is really a problem” was just a little bit weird.
My garbage person brain was craving a final scene where Max and Calliope sere getting ready to go to college and they sneak away for a secreted kiss, thus undoing the entire story and leaving the readers with a sense of “Oh my god, they’re devious horny creeps and they’re going to unravel into a life of treacherous sin, YES AND NO AT THE SAME TIME!” But again, that wasn’t this book. No one wants that Lurker Edit. It would be too Game of Thrones, and other than the obscene amounts of food consumed and the descriptions of all those tastes and flavors, the two books have nothing in common. And it should probably stay that way.
I give The People We Choose by Katelyn Detweiler 3 out of 5 Lurks.
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