Undercover was just the right book to read today, since I woke up to a layer of diamond-bright frost across my bedroom window. It’s a cold Wednesday here in the city, and Beth Kephart’s first YA novel features numerous skating scenes on a secret woodland pond. Kind of perfect.
Elisa is a teenaged ghostwriter. She pens particularly fine love letters for a few boys at school who have come to rely on her gift with words to keep their girlfriends starry eyed. Elisa looks to the natural world for fresh metaphors, and even collects odds and ends in an old hatbox for future inspiration – small shells, sea-glass chips, pebbles, papery snake skin, empty nests and polaroids of clouds. At the beginning of the story, Elisa is content in herself, and in the privacy of her artistic vision, but as circumstances at home and at school begin to change, she starts to question if living undercover is good enough.
Kephart’s novel is a difficult one to describe without taking something away from it. The different threads of story – Elisa’s writing, her delicate relationship with Theo, her uncertain family situation, her visits to the pond and teaching herself to skate – all of these layers fit together to create a story that bears thinking about. I put this book down feeling that I had read something sophisticated. There is real depth here, but I don’t think the audience of the book is limited to artsy, poetic types. While it would be just right for this sort of teenager, I believe that others will be happy to read it for the story alone, for the romance element and for the depth of Elisa’s character. I liked how Elisa discovers that she wants and deserves to have someone take interest in the person behind the love notes. Of course I also love the fact that she knows she doesn’t need to change who she is to be worthy of notice. Undercover makes you think about inspiration, the power of solitude, the mystery and magic of nature, and the balance between risk taking and trust. Highly recommended.
And it must be said, this book has a stunning cover.