St. Martin's Press
Seventeen year old Antonio is in jail for killing his father. He leaves behind a mother, two younger brothers and a devoted girlfriend, Natasha (who is sixteen). The story takes place in Harlem, New York, 1990s. Over the years Antonio and Natasha write to each other. Antonio is trying to maintain his sanity while in jail and plan his future once he's out of jail. Natasha is busy living her own life, she wants to go to a good college, away from home.
These letters felt very raw. They weren't flowery or ridiculously romantic. They are about romantic longing, but so much more. They talk about books, Harlem, their home lives, life in jail. Before jail, Antonio spent a lot of his time trying to be tough and not share details of his private life with Natasha. In the letters, he finally breaks down. I thought this was a bit too convenient, but I let it slide because I wanted to learn more about Antonio's life. Natasha wasn't as interesting to me. I felt that she was almost stereotypical, but that could be more of a result of how many YA books I've read with similar main characters. She was very determined and wanted to go to college and be a lawyer, and she wasn't going to let her economic background get in her way. Which is wonderful, but I felt that I had heard it all before. Antonio's background seemed all too familiar at first, but it got deeper and more unique. Besides being about the two main characters, we also learn A LOT about both of their families, which I really liked. The parents are a presence (for better or worse) and even the siblings have stories that are told.
Antonio's first letter starts with him asking if Natasha believes he kills his father. I was pleased at the fact that Natasha asks him if he did it. She doesn't blindly take his word for it. I understand wanting to see the best in someone you love, but I liked that Natasha was trying to be realistic and honest. One of the strongest parts of this novel is the language. The author writes very powerfully, you feel as if you are reading very private letters (which is against the law since it's not your mail! haha) and maybe you are intruding. At the same time, you can't put the book down because you need to know if Antonio killed his father and you need to know if Antonio and Natasha will stay together. The last letter is written in 1999 and while the letters are getting few and far between, it's evident that Antonio and Natasha still love each other. The question is if they have room in their lives for each other. SPOILER: Highlight to read: I was a bit ticked that Antonio didn't kill his father. Just once I would like to read a story where the main character killed someone on purpose. Not because I would enjoy it, but it would be very interesting to read about motive, etc.* End of Spoiler
Upstate is a sweet story about a not-so-sweet topic. The love story is original, emotional and very genuine. The circumstances the two main characters were born into suck and it's infuriating that they have to go through what they have to go through. They must grow up way sooner than many children. I can't say how authentic this book is in portraying prison life, I'm on the fence about that because I feel that it was a little too safe but at the same time, I've never been to prison so I wouldn't know. The author does an excellent job of creating characters that grab you and you will not forget about them right away. Perhaps one of the simplest but best parts of this book is the fact that it's about two African American teenagers who are deeply in love with each other. We don't see that very often in books or on TV (but we do in real life!) so this was a nice change. I highly recommend this book. Surprisingly not a tearjerker, but still a very moving story.
Disclosure: My mom bought it for my sister and I (it's interesting because my sister is a hopeless romantic and she didn't love this book like I thought she would. Have any romantics read the book? If so, what did you think?
PS I wonder if the book had been set in the present day if Natasha and Antonio would have been Facebook friends? Hmmmm. I think so.
Review originally first ran at Reading in Color