Book Review: Solo by Kwame Alexander

Blade never asked for a life of the rich and famous. In fact, he’d give anything not to be the son of Rutherford Morrison, a washed-up rock star and drug addict with delusions of a comeback. Or to no longer be part of a family known most for lost potential, failure, and tragedy. The one true light is his girlfriend, Chapel, but her parents have forbidden their relationship, assuming-like many-that Blade will become just like his father.             

In reality, the only thing Blade has in common with Rutherford is the music that lives inside them. But not even the songs that flow through Blade’s soul are enough when he’s faced with two unimaginable realities: the threat of losing Chapel forever, and the revelation of a long-held family secret, one that leaves him questioning everything he thought was true. All that remains is a letter and a ticket to Ghana-both of which could bring Blade the freedom and love he’s been searching for, or leave him feeling even more adrift.

Told through bestselling author Kwame Alexander’s and Mary Rand Hess’s expressive and engaging style, Solo is a melodic exploration of friendship, love, heartache, reconciliation, and what it means to finally come home.

I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander’s verse novel The Crossover, a Newbery award winning book which deals with elements of family and coming of age. Compared to Solo, The Crossover is short but powerful and intimate. I brought that with me as I was reading Solo and I wish I hadn’t. In comparison, Solo is a sprawling story that dips its metaphoric toes into too many waters.

The story is divided into two parts Part One: Hollywood and Part Two: West Africa.

Part One: Hollywood

When we meet Blade Morrison we learn the basics of his life: his mother (Sunny) died suddenly about ten 10 years ago, his father (Rutherford) is a famous musician struggling with addiction, his sister (Storm) is trying to find her way as an adult, his girlfriend (Chapel) has parents who have forbidden their relationship, and Blade is currently struggling with, as one of his friends so succinctly puts it, first world problems. Some of these include his relationship troubles with his girlfriend, his father crashing his graduation, and his inability to navigate his sister’s social scene.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there struggling with the things Blade has as conflicts in the opening parts of the book, what I am saying is that it was superficial to me. I felt no connection to Blade, had little sympathy for him as a character, and considered abandoning the book. Initially I thought Alexander and Hess were going to clearly pursue more of the continuing grief the family is experiencing after the death of Sunny or the complexities of addiction. Blade’s memories of Sunny’s death and the impact her death has had on the family were by far the strongest part especially when compared with Blade’s angst over his relationship with Chapel. However, as the text seemed to digress further into angst with no other major plot evolution I couldn’t help but think there were too many plot elements occurring at the same time. This is perhaps best illustrated in the incident that catalyzes the second half of the book.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

In the middle of Storm’s big party, she’s insulted by one of the guests, prompting Blade to throw everyone out. As everyone is leaving, with Storm clearly upset, Rutherford arrives home having left his rehab facility before completing treatment. Disappointed in the life choices of both his father and sister, a fight breaks out between them which leads to Storm angrily telling Blade he’s adopted and not a real Morrison.

Like much of the plot surrounding Rutherford, this scene is helter skelter. It’s supposed to show how “Rock and Roll” they are since Blade’s life is just a series of increasingly erratic moments as Rutherford battles addiction. Instead, it just gives the opening section a scattered and unfinished feeling.

For me as a reader, when that scene unfolded, I empathized with Blade, but I also assumed that Storm was joking or attempting to hurt Blade by lying. It was so abrupt that after it’s confirmed that Blade is adopted I had to reread the fight to realign my reaction to the moment. The revelation sends Blade spiraling and I hoped that the novel was finally getting on track with Blade beginning a search for his birth mother, but Blade still dithers in Hollywood. With his relationship with Chapel now floundering (having been caught by her parents twice), Blade opts for a dramatic gesture before setting out on his journey. He gets a tattoo of her name and arrives to show her, just in time to catch her cheating on him. The tattoo and cheating on top of the forbidden love was too much for me. It also finalized my second major reaction to Part One: Chapel felt unnecessary to me as a character, she was vapid and shallow, a caricature, and the relationship was fraught with cliches that only weighed down other elements of the plot.

As Part One closes, our protagonist receives life changing knowledge, gets a regrettable tattoo, and sets out on his quest. In Blade’s case, this quest leads him to Ghana.

Part Two: West Africa

On the whole, I enjoyed Part Two infinitely more than Part One. Taking Blade out of his comfortable Hollywood setting and having him confront major world issues in Africa gave him the opportunity to grow more as a character. In Ghana he encounters poverty, communities impacted by natural disasters and disease, and some harsh realities about charity (there’s a wonderful exchange where Blade’s new friend Joy tells him that everyone who comes to the village tells them what they need instead of asking what they need). However, while I enjoyed this part of the novel more, I still felt that the plot was spread too thin and there was an overtly didactic tone. While focusing on the realities of life in Ghana the book also introduces the impact of malaria on the people, but it does it in a way that feels heavy handed: death. It was inevitable. I could tell it was coming from the many mentions of the disease, but it, again, felt like another example of too many plot points for one story.

That being said, there were some interesting moments of character development as it becomes clear that, barring issues with the death of Sunny and learning of his adoption, Blade has NO IDEA how to treat women. His strange relationship with his ex in Hollywood seemed like a teenage fluke in Part One; in Part Two when he tries to kiss Joy after they have been hanging out she says, “Blade, you can’t just come kiss a girl because you miss a girl.” It was an incredible moment that really brought out that to this character there are only two roles for women: mother figures and potential girlfriends. He truly struggles with this and Joy makes it clear that, even if she does have feelings for him, he has to learn to be her friend first.

It’s also in Ghana that Blade continues his attempts to repair his relationship with Rutherford, who arrives in Ghana with a luxury bus and a sober coach. Paired with his physical search for his birth mother, the novel finally finds a clear purpose. Blade becomes a more compassionate and empathetic character who finally seems more at home in his own skin as he confronts his problems, although the cliche of needing nature and exoticisim to do so comes to mind.

Finally, as Blade reaches the culmination of his journey, meeting his birth mother, the verse legitimately brought me to tears. It was beautiful in a way that I had not experienced while reading any other point of the novel and reminded me of the powerful emotions depicted in The Crossover.

Alexander and Hess mention that this book is a love letter to Rock and Roll and considering the inserted track titles, dogs named Mick and Jagger, and Blade’s guitars, it succeeds in that. However, my final reaction was that the book had too many plot lines for a novel told entirely in verse, relied too much on tropes, and failed to capitalize on its premise. It was a fairly quick read though and I came to like characters such as Joy, so for me Solo was a solid three bard tale, worth reading but not a masterpiece.

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