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Book Review of Broken For You, Stephanie Kallos's debut novel

Updated on March 25, 2017
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“Broken For You,” the debut novel by Stephanie Kallos, commences with a hospital scene in which Margaret, one of the main characters, is informed by her doctor that she has a brain tumor. He suggests various treatment options she decides to ignore for the time being. With a stomach that growled during her appointed, she decides, most uncharacteristically, to visit a cafe. Here she decides to ask her waitress—a young women she refers to as Nose Ring because of the nose ring she wears—what she would do if she had less than two years to live. Much to Margaret’s surprise, Nose Rings says, “I’d think about whatever it is that scares me the most –relationshipwise, I mean—and then do it. Do the opposite of what I’ve always done.” Margaret, for better or worse, decides to take this advice. She doesn’t want to continue being reclusive and uninvolved in the lives of others. Her first act of change is composing an advertisement for a renter. This is where Wanda comes in.

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Wanda is less than half of Margaret’s age, and she is a piece of work. She excels at being a stage manager, yet her luck with relationships—romantic and otherwise—is lacking. Much to Margaret’s astonishment, Wanda confesses her current relationship woes minutes into their first meeting. Despite this social blunder, Margaret is drawn to Wanda. You might even suggest she is drawn to Wanda because her life is messier than Margaret’s. Stephanie Kallos realistically and emotively described the early interactions between these characters. By doing so, she lays the groundwork for what is to come. It’s possible to interpret Margaret’s behavior towards Wanda as overtly maternal. I’m not inclined, however, to see the affection which builds between them a force which grows out of necessity. In other words, even if neither of them would want to admit this, they need each other. Margaret needs exposure to Wanda’s youthful struggles, whereas Wanda needs a friend who is able to look past her current struggle and see the strong, spirited woman underneath the metaphorical overcoat of betrayal she is wearing.

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The novel unfolds slowly at first, yet by the midway point there are numerous less major characters adding texture and drama to the plot. Troy, the man whose devotion to Wanda is simultaneously admirable and suspect, enters the picture. Their unfolding relationship highlights one of the themes in this volume: second chances do happen—though not always—and don’t pass them up if they do. Within this theme, however, there is the opposing idea that certain things will never be repaired and sometimes those who are lost will never be found no matter how hard they are sought.

Sometimes you don't find what or who you are looking for...

Sometimes you have to make a family for yourself...

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Another theme in the book is the idea you can always start again. This is confirmed when Margaret rents a room to Wanda. In addition, the character of Irma, a holocaust survivor, exemplifies this idea because she has chosen to have a positive, life-affirming attitude in spite of the enormous losses she endured. Stitched into this theme is the idea that it isn’t too late until it is. In other words, you may not know how much time you have to live or to make amends with someone, yet the option may still exist if you only look for it.

The idea you can (and sometimes should) create your own family is another prominent theme. While it is perhaps ludicrous to say Margaret learns to care for Wanda as a daughter, their relationship deepens beyond what is typical between a renter and his or her landlord. Their investment in each other deepens as the book unfolds, and I applaud Stephanie Kallos for describing the evolution of their friendship with enough grace, humor, and detail.

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Still another theme is the idea that certain wounds never fully heal. She writes, “It is often said, in consolatory tones, that ‘time heals all wounds.’ But radiologists, who study and interpret physical proofs of the body’s ability to store memory, know that this is a crock of sh*t.” This theme made the novel more believable for me. While other readers may want a fairytale ending—or beginning and middle—I’d much rather read about the struggles a character faces and how these challenges help the character to change and grow.

The majority of this novel takes place in Seattle. The city is well described without being too much of a focal point; in other words, I was able to get a sense of the mood of the city more than knowing exactly what certain areas of the city looked like. Stephanie Kallos doesn’t limit the action in her debut novel to this city; she also sets scenes in New York City, Chicago, and Paris. One scene in Chicago takes place during Wanda’s childhood. Despite being only six, her quick thinking in this chapter makes it clear she learned how to be a stage manager—in other words, how to deal with unruly children—long before this became her profession. The idea of vocation—how it is chosen, and whether or not it is a gift or a skill developed out of necessity—fascinates me, and, consequently, I found this chapter to be engaging and worthwhile.

A view of Seattle, Washington

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Since the novel “flashes back” on more than one occasion, I recognize this approach may be tiresome for some readers. Overall I enjoyed it; indeed, I may have welcomed additional flashbacks. The flashbacks seemed necessary to me, as I don’t know if I could have understood the motives of Margaret and Wanda nearly as well without them.

As someone who appreciates character-driven novels, this novel did not disappoint. While it featured more profanity and sex than I would prefer, I recognize these elements were necessary to the advancement of the plot and true-to-character. Overall the main characters were consistent and believable, and this is one reason the novel was a joy to read. Stephanie Kallos explained the past experiences of the main characters thoroughly enough it was easy to see why they behaved the way they did.

Author Stephanie Kallos

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This novel, though not always light-hearted, offered moments of levity. Since I believe life is often a mixture of pain, sadness, boredom, and joy, I savored whimsical moments such as when Margaret bandaged the cuts on Wanda’s hand with Winnie-The-Pooh themed Band-Aids. In addition, the scene from Wanda’s childhood where it appears she first learned the magic of being a stage manager is infused with humorous details.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any novels to compare “Broken For You” with. For this reason, I cannot offer recommendations along the lines of, “If you liked this certain book, you will probably enjoy “Broken For You.” Nonetheless, I believe this is a novel worth reading if you enjoy character-driven novels which describe the complicated, occasionally redemptive ways life can unfold.

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