This review of “Baby & Solo” is sponsored by Candlewick Press.
Author Lisabeth Posthuma may transport readers back to the mid ’90s in her new novel Baby & Solo, but this YA coming-of-age story is much more than a nostalgia trip. Posthuma crafts a compelling story about trauma, mental health, and grief—and how one teenager learns to both confront the past and find a way forward.
With that said, Baby & Solo does mention topics relating to mental health, suicide, and homophobia. While I won’t detail the way in which these topics show up in the novel, this is a content warning for those who may feel uncomfortable or triggered by those topics.
The book follows Solo (aka Joel), a 17-year-old who is looking forward to being “Normal” again after living in a mental institution. Part of that is starting a new job at a local video rental store. At ROYO Video, employees take on the names of famous movie characters. Joel selects Han Solo from Star Wars, and it’s at work where he meets Baby (aka Nicole), who was named after Jennifer Grey’s character in Dirty Dancing. Over the next year, a friendship blossoms between Solo and Baby as the two traverse the many challenges—both past and present—that come their ways.
The characters Baby and Solo might both get the honors of being in the novel’s title, but don’t be deceived. The book is very much centered on Solo’s story and is told from his perspective. His voice comes off the page strongly; he often “breaks the fourth wall” to address the reader directly—a homage of sorts to ’90s films, like High Fidelity. Even then, the book which is so situated in its time period isn’t overstuffed with ’90s references. It’s much more concerned with its characters and doesn’t let its backdrop overtake the story.
While the references are fun, the story and relationships are what pulls the reader in. Solo alludes to “What Was Wrong with Me” and “The Bad Thing That Happened” at the very beginning, more or less establishing Baby & Solo as a mystery. Those mysterious elements of Solo’s past become the through-lines of the novel. He slowly leaves hints to why he was in a mental institution and the childhood tragedy that triggered it. As he does this, he works through his trauma as he tries to open himself up to Baby, who is going through her own major life event. It results in a story that’s not centered on romance but friendship. And despite the mystery, Baby and Solo’s friendship ends up being the most surprising and rewarding aspect of the book.
If there is any place where Baby & Solo disappoints, it’s the ending—the reveal of “The Bad Thing That Happened” works off a common tragedy trope. While I commend the way in which Posthuma writes about trauma, therapy and the stigma around mental health, I found it difficult to not associate that particular reveal with said trope.
Baby & Solo, much like one of its movie namesakes, balances the light and dark to create an absorbing story with characters that feel authentic. It doesn’t rely on the novelty of its setting, nor does it take itself too seriously, but it finds a way to show that no matter how much we wish we could be kind and rewind life, the best way to move forward is to press play.
Baby & Solo by Lisabeth Posthuma was published on May 11, 2021.