This is an epic rite-of-passage/coming-of-age novel about motherless punk guitarist and singer, Emily Black, written by an authentic 1990s riot grrrl/zine girl. You know she's for real because she thanks Heather Lynn and Tamra Spivey in her acknowledgments.
We meet Emily when she's a fourteen-year-old baby punk, plotting the loss of her virginity with her BFF, Regan, who like her has a mother to be gossiped about. Emily's mother Louisa left her and her dad when Emily was four months old. Regan's mom Molly had Regan's older sister when Molly was sixteen. Emily and Regan drink and fuck a lot, but what really matters to them is music. They start a band with Regan on drums and her crush Tom on bass. We follow the band She Laughs as they make their humble, even addled start at their local dive in Wisconsin, make their move to Chicago, and navigate the interpersonal and drug/alcohol problems that plague many bands. Emily also struggles with having been abandoned by her mother, even if she won't acknowledge or face the sadness overtly. The feeling of loss is evident in her lyrics, but Emily refuses to admit that she ever wanted anyone but her father as family.
The narration is mostly handled by Emily, mostly in the first person, but we also hear from Louisa, always in the third. Louisa has a tough time of it, too, and lives with sadness over leaving Emily and guilt about what caused her to do so.
Kuehnert's story and character are compelling, but she's also handy with imagery, like this description of a stripper, "She wore a shimmering, pearly skirt slit up to her hips on both sides, revealing legs the vulnerable pink of the inside of a shell." The pearl/shell thing--it's sexy, valuable, and girly, but also brittle and fragile.
She's also funny, turning on common words like "chemistry," describing Emily's chemistry with her ex-boyfriend as "not the kind of chemistry that brings about cures for diseases and solutions to the energy crisis, but the kind that explodes and leaves most everyone in the vicinity dead or deformed, and the survivors shaking their heads going, 'I wish I'd seen that coming.'"
I got really attached to Emily and miss her now that I'm done reading her story. I'm looking forward to reading Kuehnert's next book, Ballads of Suburbia and her forthcoming zine-style YA memoir.