Where I Belong
The current recession sets the backdrop for Where I Belong, Gwendolyn Heasley’s debut novel. Corrinne Corcoran, a self-centered, overindulged 16-year-old, tells the story from her point of view. While Where I Belong flirts with the impact of the recession and how it changes one family it never dips seriously into recessionary woes. In spite of what could be a disheartening topic, teens should find this a fun read because Corrinne’s self-absorbed teenaged focus on the situation keeps the story light.
Corrinne is a Manhattan born teen, groomed to go to the best schools. She lives with her family in a high-class uptown apartment with a doorman she has wrapped around her little finger. She’s the kind of teen who hires a towncar or takes a cab rather than the subway, travels in the best circles, has “her own plastic,” and feels entitled to shop the designer section of the best Manhattan stores with little concern for cost. When her father, who earns seven figures as a Wall Street type, loses his job and most of the family fortune in a Ponzi-like scheme gone wrong, Corrinne’s life goes south, literally. The Manhattan apartment and new Nantucket house must be sold; Dad moves to Dubai for his new job; and instead of heading to the elite boarding school she’s supposed to attend in the fall, she and her younger brother are shipped off to live with grandparents they hardly know in Broken Spoke, Texas. Seemingly overnight she goes from being a “have” to a “have-not.”
Corrinne is far from your average teen, and the typical teen will likely not relate to her lifestyle. That doesn’t mean they won’t sympathize with her predicament or see things from her side. Think: Sex in the City. Just as millions of women lived vicariously through Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda, teens will find themselves attracted to Corrinne, who is likable in spite of her self-centered ways. They will be enticed by the city girl meets cow-town and cowboy story, as well as the sweet picture on the book cover.
To paint the family’s high-class lifestyle, there is a lot of designer label name-dropping, and at times the details and storyline feel a bit contrived. Near the beginning of the novel, when a family meeting is called to share the bad news, the whole family approaches the dining table at the same time. “It’s awkward because none of us knows where to sit. We just stand and wait for someone to make a move even though it shouldn’t really matter since it’s a large circular table.”
Has this family really never sat down for a meal or a chat at the table in their own home before?
When Corrinne arrives in Texas her grandmother finds her a stable job shoveling manure. Grant it, Corrinne is no newcomer to stables. In New York, she rides dressage and owns her own horse. Still, going from her carefree-indulged-never-lift-a-finger life to shoveling manure stretches the riches to rags theme a bit far.
Between getting to know her grandparents, the humiliation of attending a small-town school, and Grandma’s structure and rules, life in Texas starts off rocky. With the help of her understanding Grandpa; her crush on a wanna-be musician, Bubby; the high-school football hero’s crush on her; and sugary Kitsy who befriends her, the ups and downs smooth out pretty quickly. This comes as more of a surprise to Corrinne than to the reader. Overall the plot is transparent and predictable.
The predictability comes in part from an opening letter from Corrinne to the reader that comes across as part prologue and part gimmick. In it, Corrinne explains the Butterfly Effect. “It means the smallest moments of the past, even the ones that don’t have anything to do with us, affect our future and our future selves.” She tells the reader this is the story of how she was transformed and to keep reading even if “you hate me at first.”
It begs the question of why Heasley choose to tell the reader the plot and how to feel about Corrinne upfront—instead of trusting the writing and story and characterization to show them.