Special thanks to Algonquin Books for inviting me to be on the blog tour and for providing the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Goodreads: At the Edge of the Haight
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: 19 January 2021
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
(actual 2.75 pandas)
Maddy Donaldo, homeless at twenty, has made a family of sorts in the dangerous spaces of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She knows whom to trust, where to eat, when to move locations, and how to take care of her dog. It’s the only home she has. When she unwittingly witnesses the murder of a young homeless boy and is seen by the perpetrator, her relatively stable life is upended. Suddenly, everyone from the police to the dead boys’ parents want to talk to Maddy about what she saw. As adults pressure her to give up her secrets and reunite with her own family before she meets a similar fate, Maddy must decide whether she wants to stay lost or be found. Against the backdrop of a radically changing San Francisco, a city which embraces a booming tech economy while struggling to maintain its culture of tolerance, At the Edge of the Haight follows the lives of those who depend on makeshift homes and communities.
As judge Hillary Jordan says, “This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear, or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”
TL;DR: While this was not the fast-paced plot-driven story that I had expected, I am still glad that I read it. I thought Seligman did really well in connecting us to those who are a part of society that many don’t give the time of day to understand. Following these young people through a season on the streets was illuminating and humanising, and I think the author really excelled in this aspect of the story. That said, the lack of connection to the characters combined with a weak and meandering plot made it difficult for me to feel invested in what I was reading, and I’m still unsure where the author was trying to bring the story.
I’m conflicted about my thoughts on this book and I’m not quite sure how to rate it (update: ended up going for 2.75 rounded up). 🤔 The main problem for me is that I don’t really feel anything about it… I didn’t hate it but I didn’t really like it either. I was expecting this to be a lot more plot-driven, especially as the story starts off with a bang as Maddy stumbles across this dead boy and his murderer; but this was much more character-driven and we follow the lives of these homeless youth across a season. That said, I didn’t connect to or really care for the characters at all and thus didn’t feel invested in this story, although I found the lens into homelessness in America intriguing enough to keep on reading.
I thought the book was well-written for the most part, although there were some pacing issues and scene transitions that felt very clunky; but I did read this in one day because it wasn’t a difficult book to consume. As an international reader, what attracted me most to this story was the focus on the homeless in America. Despite knowing that homelessness is an issue, I think it’s easy for those who come from non-Western or developing countries to naively believe that homelessness doesn’t exist in Western or first-world countries. Seligman paints a well-nuanced picture of what it’s like to be homeless in a large city like San Francisco, and the reasons why young people end up living on the streets. I enjoyed learning about the daily routines that Maddy and her group of friends developed to survive and how they went about securing food and a place to sleep, but also how they’re completely vulnerable to the environment and to a society that sees them as vagrants and good-for-nothing problems. That said, as someone who comes from a country where social security is basically non-existent, it was fascinating to learn that even as a homeless person in America, people still have some sort of security net through homeless shelters and free clinics, and access to other free resources to better their lives should they want to.
As our protagonist, Maddy was difficult to empathise with because she was very closed off and came across as brusque and cold most of the time. She even had a frustratingly blasé attitude towards the friends who were supposedly her family in the story. I do understand her jaded and defensive attitude stems from what happened to her as a child with her mother and living with her abusive cousins. I just never really understood her motives or her thought process. Such as why her attitude towards being involved with the murder investigation changes so drastically half-way through. Why she was so adamant about remaining on the streets and refusing any form of support that was offered to her–though I did understand why she refused Shane’s parents because they were aggressively overbearing and had no concept of boundaries. I also had difficulty following the ending and understanding the sudden decision she makes, the angsty scenes with Ash, and what it all meant for her story. It’s an open ending which I didn’t actually mind because it was realistic but there’s no sense of any kind of resolution and left me feeling a little underwhelmed.
Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author in San Francisco. As a reporter, she’s focused on social issues, from homelessness, mental health and end of life issues to the city’s boom and bust cycles. But she’s also written about everything else, from self-appointed graffiti curators, urban coyotes and embryonic sex selection to what her kids learned growing up in Haight Ashbury.
She has been a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and USA Today. Her stories have appeared in Redbook, Life, Time, California Magazine, PBS Next Avenue, CALmatters, Al Jazeera America, and the anthology “Fresh Takes.” She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and loves working in clay. (Check out some of her ceramic work, made and sold at Sharon Arts Studio).
Have you read At the Edge of the Haight or is it on your TBR?