Honey: A Novel

Image of Honey: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
Celadon Books
Reviewed by: 

“pungent insights into people’s motivations, emotions, and relationships”

“I didn’t like to perform. I liked to be loved,” Amber Young, the narrator of Honey, muses about herself at age 12, when her dream of being a singer seems to be permanently derailed. Then she amends her self-analysis: “These two things might stem from the same want: to be inflated. To have hot air blown into you by another person’s lips.”

Like the best song lyrics, this debut novel bursts with pungent insights into people’s motivations, emotions, and relationships—phrases that linger in the reader’s memory without getting in the way of the music (or story).

The story in this case takes Amber from a school talent show in New Jersey, past the brief derailment (when she narrowly loses a big TV singing contest), to a fledgling girl group, then a solo leap, and higher and higher into the pop-music stratosphere of the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Performances on Rosie O’Donnell, Live with Regis and Kelly, TRL, Top of the Pops.” A cover story in Rolling Stone magazine. A gig at the American Music Awards show. The plot line is actually the weakest aspect of this book, because Amber’s trajectory is almost too soaring and smooth to believe.

Happily, Amber herself is a much more believable and complex person. Starting with her hesitant dreams, she grows into the awareness of her own ambition. If the music industry has decided to cast her as “the slut” in contrast to the virginal Gwen Morris, her best friend and former groupmate, so be it. Amber will not only flaunt that image, but she will also discover that she actually likes having sex.

During her halting self-discovery, Amber frets, in one of the novel’s sharpest lines, “Why is it that every day, I regret who I was the day before?”

Amber and Gwen’s friendship is also a moving and complicated theme. Their relationship zigzags from mentorship, to rivalry, to romantic jealousy, to the deepest layers of trust and honesty.

Considering that she’s been immersed in the big-time music industry, singing of sex, heartbreak, and power, Amber sometimes seems too naïve about both her and Gwen’s romantic interests. Then again, for all her success, she’s still very young. Just because she understands vocal harmony, that doesn’t necessarily mean she understands the interpersonal kind, but the naivete would have been less jarring if there had been a few more, subtle reminders of her age.

While tracing Amber’s climb, Honey takes a fascinating tour inside that music world. Along with the roar of the crowds, the novel shows the mundane, endless, note-by-note re-mixings in a recording booth and the stench of a band’s tour bus, with “body odor covering everything like settled dust.”

Interspersed throughout the narrative are occasional Wikipedia entries, interviews with key characters, headlines, and other supposed news items. The technique—thankfully, not overused—helps put the story in a broader context and also makes it more interesting.

Among those interruptions are some of the lyrics Amber eventually composes. It’s a brave move by the author, Isabel Banta, a book publicist and indie bookseller. Luckily, the lyrics are pretty good, even without backup instrumentals. One of Amber’s biggest hits includes the chorus:

“See that sign on my door?

Please don’t disturb me anymore

It’s closed now, the room is mine

Won’t show you what’s inside”

In this book, Amber and Banta push further inside.