Book review

'Ketchup Clouds': Guilt imprisons a teen with a secret

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Annabel Pitcher's second novel, "Ketchup Clouds" (Little, Brown and Co., $18, ages 12 and up), goes straight for the heart.

Keeping quiet has kept Zoe out of jail, but she's in a prison of her own -- so begins her series of confessional letters to a convicted murderer across an ocean, on death row in Texas.

Zoe leads a relatively ordinary life in England. Her lawyer parents are strict but loving, although their frequent fights lead Zoe and her sisters to whisper (and worry) about divorce.

Zoe's passion is writing -- well, writing and the Morgan brothers. Max Morgan is the popular dreamboat girls pine for. His first drunken pass is a welcome surprise, and their relationship heats up quickly.

His brother, Aaron, is a doe-eyed free spirit who shares Zoe's affinity for wordplay. "I don't always get your jokes, but I like that you tell them," Max tries. The problem is, Aaron does get her jokes; he thinks they're hilarious.

When her home life starts to feel overwhelming, Zoe steps away from her usual role as dutiful daughter to begin a fling with Max. At the same time, she develops a chaste intrigue with Aaron. By the time she realizes they share parents (and a car -- awkward silences ensue), she feels intimately connected to both.

Zoe reveals the depth of her feelings to one brother when her secret is exposed. Readers may feel that Aaron forgets his anger a little too quickly, but they'll likely be distracted from that concern by the unfolding drama.

Zoe and Aaron resolve to tell Max the truth and legitimize their ill-fated connection. Of course, things will go horribly wrong.

Back to the pen pal: Stuart Harris killed his wife in a "crime of passion" when she admitted to having an affair. The crime that earned him capital punishment, however, was the follow-up. That's when he killed his neighbor (who came, as it happens, bearing a mincemeat pie) for walking into the crime scene.

Zoe's identification with Mr. Harris, later "Stu," only increases as she tries to live life normally but is drawn back into the vacuum of her accident's consequence.

"Perhaps we need each other," she wonders, although Zoe never identifies so closely with Stu as to call herself a criminal. Early letters subject readers to Zoe's sardonic imaginings of life in jail ("I imagine ... it doesn't feel that festive eating gruel behind bars"). Later, she petitions a nun to help get Mr. Harris out of his sentence, writing:

"You're not on your own, Stu, so don't lie there on your thin mattress believing that the whole world just sees your bad soul. There's a girl in England who knows there's some good, and tonight she's picturing it sparkling all bright in your cell."

Mr. Harris never responds -- no surprise, given that Zoe doesn't share her real name or address. And despite the fact that she learns to find comfort in her hiding place and her pen pal, she "would do anything to forget."

Readers may be frustrated to find that it's unclear how Zoe's story will resolve. They are led to believe her fate will be a happier one than that of Mr. Harris.

Author Pitcher makes it clear from the outset that being caught is never truly a concern. Because one brother corroborates Zoe's story, her lie to the police is easily (although not unanimously) accepted.

Rather than dismissing secondary characters to the background, Ms. Pitcher uses them to make her story come alive. Zoe's sister, Dot, lost her hearing when she was very young, and the author creates a convincing exuberant deaf character without romanticizing Dot's differences. Neither does she neglect the small ways in which everyday conversations -- even in a family where everyone signs -- pose challenges for those with hearing loss.

Zoe's fling with popular Max is marred at the outset when he texts a topless photograph of her to a friend (who shares it with a friend, and so forth). She confronts him without reserve, and he apologizes -- in-between fist bumps with his buddies.

Unfortunately, Ms. Pitcher glosses over this timely issue when Zoe accepts Max's apology to jump to their shared interest in making out. Readers are spared a heavy-handed lesson because the teens' sexual chemistry blinds Zoe (all too realistically) to matters of trust and consent. But obviously, there's still a lesson there to be learned. Only in the final pages do readers learn who died that fateful night, and why it was so easy to lie. Despite the somber content, Ms. Pitcher's humor relays the narrator's circumstances as the sum of unfortunate events.

This delicate handling makes it likely that readers will forgive Zoe before she forgives herself. Meanwhile, the book's lifelike characters realistically convey teenage passion and lead readers on a romp through relationships so intricately tangled that Zoe's story is impossible to put down.

Whitney Philipps Yoder, is teen library assistant at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch, Oakland.

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