Lea Lane has lived in between all her life.
Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage.
Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she's willing to change in order to fit into their world.
Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. But it isn’t until her junior year that she learns how to do it on her own terms.
From the Hardcover edition.
I admit it: I wanted to read Juniors because I fell in love with the movie The Descendants, which is based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ eponymous novel. I loved the way that the screenplay perfectly captured the conflict of the teenage daughter and the protagonist father, and I liked how we got a glimpse of some of the cultural and class issues in Hawaii.
Juniors expands on those issues, this time fully from the perspective of a teenage girl. Lea Lane is a part-Hawaiian girl who has just moved back to Oahu after several years in California. She’s been enrolled at a fancy private school mid-way through junior year, and as a result, is having a hard time fitting in. That feeling heightens when Lea’s mother, an up-and-coming actress, moves the two of them to a cottage on the property of a wealthy patron’s family on the shores of Kahalu.
This book is about displacement, in geography, in class, in life, even in your own family. Hemmings nailed the depiction of in-betweenness that Lea feels everywhere she goes, those not-fitting-into-your-skin moments when your body is growing up faster than your head is, and vice-versa. Lea already has to deal with a new school; now she has to figure out her own feelings for her childhood friend Danny, and the rich kids who live at the mansion beside the cottage: the mysterious and enigmatic Will, and the seemingly flakey but friendly Whitney.
And the feeling continues when Lea is faced with how the past affects her. Like in The Descendants, Hemmings looks subtly but deeply into how much our parents’ actions play out in shaping our own histories and futures. Being in her head, I felt just as imbalanced, shy and confused about whether Lea could trust her mother, her elders, or her friends, and how to act around them.
While I enjoyed the mood and the themes, I felt that there wasn’t enough plot to keep me really engaged in the story. The plot seemed to be essentially Lea living her life, and while I liked and admired the realism of Lea’s relationship with her mother, the central romance and friendship didn’t really stand out for me, and the highs and lows of the plot were almost too subtle for my liking. The book worked thematically and stylistically, but not as much in character development as I hoped.
Hawaiian culture: Hemmings completely immerses you into the culture and feeling of Hawaii. Even though Hawaii is a part of the United States, it’s so far removed, and Hemmings’ Hawaii is almost its own character with its own culture, topography and traditions. You really feel the clash between the native Hawaiians, those who are part Hawaiian, and the non-Hawaiians who have chosen to make the islands their home. That, along with Lea’s own feeling of having grown up in Hawaii but moved back, just heightens Lea’s displacement.
The Final Word:
A solid and very realistic take on a teenager feeling like she’s on the outskirts of everything, Kaui Hart Hemmings’ JUNIORS is an exploration of Hawaii, of class, and of the uncomfortableness of becoming comfortable in your own skin. While I wish the plot moved at a faster clip and the character development was bolder, I liked the layering of themes of displacement and I found the end of the book satisfying. A sophisticated read for a teen who values mood over plot.
JUNIORS came out last week. Are you interested in reading it? Have you been to Hawaii and if so, did you notice any of those cultural clashes that Hemmings likes to write about? How much are you like your parents? How are you different?