I was skeptical of this when I ordered it for the library, because I usually have this assumption that books set in the 90s (or the era in which the author was a teenager) don’t appeal to teens so much as adults who are looking for nostalgia for their own teenage years. But this story was so well-written, so fresh and engrossing, and so on point about what it means to be a teen, in the 90s or now, that I was delightfully surprised. I absolutely loved it.
The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Published: October 1st 2014 by Elephant Rock Productions, Inc.
Source: local library
Genre: young adult historical
Find: Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound
Synopsis: It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live.
The Carnival at Bray is an evocative ode to the Smells Like Teen Spirit Generation and a heartfelt exploration of tragedy, first love, and the transformative power of music.
My thoughts: The Carnival at Bray is about grief and loss, first love and family ties. It’s depicts both extremes of the teenage experience: the everyday boredom and small, quiet moments, and the frenzied, monumental, life-changing events. In short, it’s everything a young adult novel should be.
What impressed me most about The Carnival at Bray was the way the complicated dynamics of family relationships were portrayed. Maggie’s relationship with her mom is layered. She’s starting to realize her mom can be selfish, flawed, and immature and resents it while still loving her. I particularly related to this aspect of the story. Maggie also has an adorable relationship with her younger sister, who is just as annoying and endearing as any 11 year old is to a 16 year old. But perhaps the pivotal family relationship in the book is Maggie’s friendship with her just ten years older uncle, who introduces her to grunge, respects her and treats her as a peer, who most see as a bad influence on her.
I also appreciated seeing a type of family that that doesn’t often appear in young adult literature. They are working class, and three generations live together.
When Maggie moves from Chicago to Ireland, she struggles to fit in and make friends. She has a friend of convenience that felt as awkward and authentic as any teenage friendship. Maggie also befriends an elderly neighbor, and their scenes together were charming.
Music plays such a pivotal role in the lives of many teens, and The Carnival at Bray captures the feeling of finding music that speaks to you and the experience of sharing it with others. This books makes the reader feel as if they are seeing their own favorite band play live.
This is a book well-suited to both teen readers as well as adults. It deals with big issues like suicide, grief, loneliness, rebellion, and trust, but with a light hand that doesn’t overly dramatize them or feel emotionally manipulative.
Recommend for fans of: Gayle Forman, Cath Crowley, and Melina Marchetta
Wandering Educators: “It’s difficult to move. It’s even more difficult when you’re a teenager – and you’re moving to another country. Such is the case with protagonist Maggie Lynch in Jessie Ann Foley’s fantastic new book, The Carnival at Bray. In this book, Foley succinctly captures the intercultural experiences of being a teen in a new land, and how music, love, friends, and landscape help shape her and find herself.”