*This article was originally published on Kingstonist.*
Local author Leanne Lieberman is set to release her sixth young adult work of fiction this spring. Cleaning Up is the story of a teenage girl whose summer does not go at all as planned. Groundwood Books provided Cleaning Up to me, through Kingstonist, free of charge, to allow me to create this review.
Herein lies the story of Jess, who, like many teenagers, spends too much time inside her own head. As with any good work of young adult fiction, the introspective main character feels alone, a social outcast who thinks she will be looked down upon for her upbringing.
The product of a broken home and alcoholic parents, Jess knows she needs to work hard to go places in life. And, despite her summer plans (and summer job) being left behind in the city of Kingston, she finds a cleaning job at a lovely home in Westport, nearby to the trailer park she and her father are living in for the summer.
While cleaning this classy, outwardly perfect family home, Jess stumbles upon a diary owned by the teenage daughter of the family, Quinn. Jess feels like this wealthy girl from an upstanding family could never be friends with her and her practically penniless lifestyle. Nonetheless, Jess imagines she might become friends with Quinn, and begins a diary of her own in which she shares her thoughts on what could have been, despite never actually meeting Quinn.
As the summer rolls along, Jess does meet some interesting characters who encourage her and help her discover herself, even going so far as to join their band. But, as with many teenage characters, things never continue without some drama — imagined or otherwise.
Between the hidden diary, and what her new friends let slip about the daughter of the house, Jess quickly realizes that what looks perfect on the outside is rarely so underneath.
Cleaning Up tells a smooth, easy-reading story with significant depth of character. There is some substance use content, which is necessary for the plot development, and I would say that as a work of young adult fiction, this a well-crafted book.
Readers who enjoy characters who grow and evolve throughout a story will enjoy reading about Jess and her summer of what starts off as disappointments. Anyone who identifies with feeling insecure and making mistakes while growing up will truly “get” Jess. Though she tends to overthink in many situations, her character is likable and determined for a young teenager.
Those with a connection with the Kingston area will also enjoy the name dropping that Lieberman sprinkles throughout this story. From the Grand Theatre to Reddendale, and, of course, Westport, where Jess is “summering”, it’s a real “where’s where” of Kingston and area.
In an email interview, Lieberman shared that, while she’s lived in Kingston for almost 16 years, this is her first novel set in the area.
“My previous YA books all featured Jewish protagonists, and I imagined those characters in settings where I have lived in Toronto and Vancouver, which have larger Jewish populations,” she said. “But I envisioned Cleaning Up very much taking place in Kingston and the surrounding areas for two specific reasons.”
She went on to say that she envisioned the Westport home where Jess, the main character, is quite literally “cleaning up” to be the Stepping Stone Inn near Westport, where she and her husband stayed once years ago.
The Westport setting was important to the plot, as Jess is trying to reinvent herself over the summer, the author noted, and having her do so in a new environment helped support the book’s theme.
“The second reason I set Cleaning Up in Kingston is because the wealth gap between the main characters reflects what I see so often in Kingston,” Lieberman explained. “Jess, who worries constantly about money and has little financial support from her father, becomes fascinated with Quinn, the wealthy girl whose destroyed room Jess cleans.”
She added that the income disparity between these two characters reflects what she sees in Kingston, especially in the local school system where, as a teacher, Lieberman has taught many at-risk students. “This wealth gap reflects a much larger trend in Canada, especially in the aftermath of COVID, but I think its more conspicuous to me in Kingston than other places I’ve lived,” she said.
To enhance the Kingston connection, Lieberman shared that her editor, Shelley Tanaka, also lives here in Kingston.
“We had met before working on this book, at the Kingston Writers Festival. Shelley interviewed me for one of my previous books, However, due to COVID, Shelley and I never met in person while working on the book. I am looking forward to seeing her in person at the book launch for Cleaning Up.”
Lieberman will launch Cleaning Up at Novel Idea, 156 Princess Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Apr. 20, 2023.