When one thinks of a “coming-of-age” story, it is often a span of short years—perhaps from adolescence to the beginning of adulthood—that takes one major event that fuels the main characters’ development, for better or worse. It is compact and convenient, yet it often leads to generalized and watered down “life stories” in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
Jukebox is not that story.
Gina Noelle Daggett’s debut novel weaves the lives of the main characters into a seamless and organic narrative of love—where passion, anger, denial, and acceptance flow as a quiet stream into a full blown river of emotions and understandings, both of the characters’ selves and their relation to each other.
Beginning with their first meeting as children and ending as women nearing middle age, Jukebox (Bella Books) takes the reader through this journey of self-discovery and burgeoning passion through the eyes of Harper Alessi, a girl coming from old money and a life of privilege thanks to her grandparents’ upper class standing in Arizona.
Despite the wealth she (indirectly) has, Harper remains a sympathetic character because she allows herself to feel and experience emotions as they come. She never tries to relegate blame or act in an obtuse manner because of her social standing; Harper has her insecurities and problems, and in this case, money ends up exacerbating those problems, not solve them.
However, the issue of money (and thus, power) does not coming from Harper herself, but from her love interest, Grace Dunlop.
And this is where a small, if common, pet peeve of mine enters the narrative. Because the entire novel is told through Harper’s point of view and experiences, Grace is set up as this untouchable figure in Harper’s eyes, even though she is anything but.
This is not to say that Grace remains that way throughout the story, but I felt that Harper’s view of Grace (especially later into the book, when the issues over what the nature of their relationship and their sexuality are actually confronted) is overly sympathetic. This fact made it hard for me to read through Harper’s pain and anger at times; it left me losing sympathy for both of them because it became exasperating to read at times.
Ultimately, this small aspect does little to detract from the overall sense of growth that both characters experience, as Daggett leads them through high and lows, with secondary characters who compliment the story because they are given tangible and realistic personalities instead of being molded into two-dimensional plot contrivances to move the plot along.
If there is anything that I would call a major “critique,” it comes from the back cover description of the book. It presents all the clichés about “love at first sight” and being “soul mates” from the day they met, but that could not be further from the case. In fact, it was a pleasant surprise to see the relationship bloom from childhood friends to young women in love at a slower pace, as it did not feel heavy-handed and forced as I have come to expect from romance novels.
So, if I could give one recommendation, it would be not to judge a book (and in this case, a very well-written lesbian love story) by its cover — or rather, by its back cover.