Book Review: GUN LOVE by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.

You can read my full review below.


9781524761684

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $25.00

My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.

My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.

And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.

But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.

Gun Love, page 1

There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.

Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.

Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.

A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.

It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.

Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.

Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.

In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Gun Love came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.13.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week all my library holds seemed to come in at once–I’ve got two more to pick up this afternoon that aren’t even on this list!–so I’ll be reading like mad to keep up. It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve picked out three tightly-plotted coming-of-age stories that promise to keep my eyes glued to the page from start to finish.

Let’s dive in!


The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781250128508the premise: A father and daughter, both Ethiopian immigrants, flee Boston for an island commune after the daughter becomes entangled with a parking lot attendant named Ayale–a hustler and “unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community,” according to the inside flap. The Parking Lot Attendant is a suspenseful coming-of-age story about immigration, national identity, and the choices and unforeseen consequences that shape all of us.

why I’m excited: This is a slim book–only 240 pages–that promises to pack a punch; it’s already received praise for being an unusual and interesting take on the coming-of-age story, a really saturated sub-genre. I’m particularly excited to read about the commune aspect–I’m fascinated by communes and off-the-grid living–and about the narrator’s struggle to navigate her Ethiopian identity in America.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781524761684the premise: A mother and daughter live out of their car at a trailer park in central Florida, the daughter Pearl in the front seat, her mother in the back. It’s a difficult life made more difficult by the intoxicating, menacing presence of guns: guns owned for all sorts of reasons and guns that trigger a shocking act of violence that turns Pearl’s life upside-down. (P.S.: isn’t it so funny that this cover looks so similar to The Parking Lot Attendant‘s? They’re both fiery coming-of-age novels, so it makes sense.)

why I’m excited: A novel about gun violence in the U.S. couldn’t be more topical right now, and best of all, it seems that Clement will interweave that theme with a story that’s genuinely nuanced and compelling (making it much more than just an “issue novel”). The premise also put me in mind of The Florida Projecta film about a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet living in a motel in central Florida. That movie is streaming on Amazon Prime; I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s currently at the top of my to-watch list, and I’m hoping Gun Love will strike the same notes.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780451478733the premise: It’s 1939 Germany, and the Holocaust has just begun. Sarah, a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl, burns for revenge after her mother, an actress, is murdered at a checkpoint. She’s soon recruited as a spy by a mysterious man who needs her to infiltrate an elite boarding school attended by the daughters of Nazi leaders so that she can uncover the blueprints to a devastating bomb that could turn the tide of the war.

why I’m excited: It’s yet another thrilling coming-of-age novel: just take a minute or two to absorb that premise! It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing backdrop for a story that also promises to tackle tough questions of identity, revenge, and survival. It’s appalling to me that today in 2018, Nazism is on the rise all over again. Orphan Monster Spy feels like an urgent antidote to the anti-Semitic hate that has killed millions and might kill millions again if we’re not careful. I’m planning to clear my calendar for an afternoon read this in as close to one setting as I can manage–I hope it lives up to the hype I’ve built up for it in my mind.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!