Big in heart and ambition but slower on delivery, “Juniper Lane” leaves its reader feeling sweetened and hopeful, but simultaneously somewhat dissatisfied.
From the opening chapter of “Juniper Lane,” the newest novel soon to be released by Big Bang Press, a Kickstarter company that publishes original work of popular writers in the fanfiction community, the reader is pushed to analyze a personal narrative of love, loss, and reconnection.
The author, debut novelist Kady Morrison, establishes much of the basic plotline in her first few pages: Mim Robinson—full name “Mimosa,” a word choice which piques humor but unfortunately never manages to sound entirely natural for the character—is shy and pitifully nervous when she arrives on Juniper Lane, an overly affluent suburban satellite community of 50 and 60-year-olds in Barn Ridge, Ohio, whose admittedly shallow lives revolve entirely around lackluster social affairs, garden gnomes, and juicy gossip.
Mim has come back to Juniper Lane, estranged from her family, after a nasty break-up from an abusive ex-boyfriend, and is riding on the coattails of some serious personal trauma. She seeks immediate solace in the steady monotony and upscale negligence of life on Juniper Lane, dedicating herself to fitting neatly into the cookie-cutter social hierarchy. Kady Morrison portrays this lifestyle somewhat satirically in the book, mainly as a series of charity-fueled events where catty women make appearances at garden parties and mutter over sugary cocktails about neighborhood doings to one another.
Enter Nadia Bahjat, the only other 20-something on the street, who hates the over-puffed Juniper Lane residents and has a host of her own complicated family and relationship problems. Nadia manages to break every single one of Juniper Lane’s absurd social laws; she wears dark, bold lipstick, she aspires to be a professional chef, she dyes her hair, and is a blatantly uncloseted lesbian. Really, think of the scandal!
But this is all made obviously clear to the reader in the beginning of the novel. After establishing this baseline in her opening chapter, Morrison then takes her reader on a balmy, summer-golden, slow-growing build over the next 290 pages that is one part romance, and one part family drama, heavily dosed with self-exploration. Readers can pick one of the two main characters to identify with and follow them good-naturedly along through the story as Mim and Nadia meet, immediately despise each other, and then slowly start to build a blossoming friendship and romance, getting into plenty of endearing trouble along the way.
Throughout the novel, Mim and Nadia also begin to work through the painful steps toward recovery from abusive and unfulfilling relationships. This character development is the strongest point of Morrison’s writing; Mim and Nadia’s budding romance repeatedly takes a backseat to deeper issues of personal growth, acceptance, family issues, and self-care.
Mim’s both emotionally and physically abusive past relationship throughout the book feels viscerally real, messy, and thought-provokingly complicated. There is nuance and grace in coping with the aftermath of a separation and subsequent rebirth of self-confidence and acceptance, and Morrison beautifully emphasizes this. Similar but no less subtly intricate, Nadia’s relationship with her parents will pull with emotional intensity on every reader’s heartstrings.
The real issue of “Juniper Lane,” despite its many redeeming and frankly awesome qualities, is that despite being an original work of sizable merit, it reads just a little bit too much in the style of a long-form fanfiction.
Personally, as an individual reader I’m all about fanfiction. I’ve been reading it since the 6th grade, I’ve gone through as many different fandoms, forums, and websites I could get my hands on. I’ve admired Big Bang Press’s mission to bring the original work of prominent fanfiction authors into the light since it first launched off of Kickstarter.
However, Morrison’s plot feels too underdeveloped in places, remaining resolutely focused on character-driven narrative of only the two main characters for most of the book, and relying perhaps too much on occasionally overused cliches, satire, and glossy far-reaching hops through time and space to fill in gaps in the plot.
When reading “Juniper Lane,” you balance on the slippery edge of a diving board at the deep end of the pool, bouncing up and down in the breeze, precariously waiting to jump. It’s not the dive itself that deters you—it’s the unknown waiting below. “Juniper Lane” simply doesn’t deliver on this great unknown, for its setting, plot, and characters.
In the basic skeleton structure of a long-form fanfiction piece, “Juniper Lane” ticks many of the boxes for the standard arsenal: snappy dialogue, emotional outbursts functioning as climatic moments, cinematic imagery, and side characters who serve as cameos to a wider universe. When reading fanfiction, the audience knows all about the bigger picture, but in “Juniper Lane,” readers aren’t quite so lucky.
Instead, they are left puzzled over semi-cliché wrap-ups of loose ends, such as the classic “lesbian road-trip” ending that Mim and Nadia embark upon at the close of the book, or the “dream-like sequence of a character’s self-determining moment,’” such as when Mim goes to a music festival rather unexpectedly, and has a wild hazy night of drugs and realizations.
Morrison does, however, leave out that old favorite, the patented mid-point sex scene so common in most fanfiction writing styles. While by no means necessary, I almost found myself wishing for one or two sexier moments, just to even out the tentative, restrained air that saturated Mim and Nadia’s romance.
The novel is too preoccupied delivering the glorious and affirming personal narrative and romance of Mim and Nadia, which although intriguing, causes more than a few more novel things to slip through the cracks.
Despite these structural drawbacks that leave holes in the plot and underdeveloped minor characters sitting on the sidelines, “Juniper Lane” is a thoughtful and entertaining read, packed with lovely nuggets of LGBTQ advocacy. There’s a bisexual character who actually declares her identity, which is a refreshing change from writers who prefer instead to keep bisexual characters hidden in subtext (can we have three cheers for bisexual representation please?) and a strong emphasis on the importance of respect and consent in all relationships.
The crowning jewel of Morrison’s “Juniper Lane” is in its straight-forward unrolling of the foundational fabric in relationships of every kind. In each character’s life, this openly displayed fabric tears, stretches, rips and frays over time, weathering abuse, isolation, support, and most importantly, growth.