The heart is not a size; it has great capacity to expand and accommodate, as Georgia discovers during two weeks on a service project south of the border in Juarez, Mexico. She learned about the project during her routine perusal of the community bulletin board at the supermarket, and almost immediately decided that she and her best friend, Riley, were going along with a group of fellow teens to build a community bathroom in Anapra, a squatters' village just outside the city. As Georgia, Riley, and their parents attend the orientation sessions that the service group, GoodWorks, conducts before the trip, they're told that the work they'll be doing is about "transformation." Georgia will see that the concept doesn't just apply to the physical work they're doing for the community.
Juarez is a different world to these suburban kids: desert hot, impoverished, and dangerous. They're told about "los muertas de Juarez" - the many girls and women who have mysteriously been snatched and murdered over the years - and instructed never to leave their work group's compound and wander alone. But Georgia is struck by the way the locals she meets, including the many curious children who come to watch the group work, are able to keep going day by day in the face of such struggles and losses.
Georgia's own struggles are different, and more personal. For a couple of years, she has been experiencing sudden panic attacks that she hasn't discussed with anyone - not even Riley, and they've been best friends since first grade. She also hasn't been able to discuss Riley's increasingly apparent eating disorder with her; anxiety about the possible fallout of bringing up that subject feeds the panic, and drives exploration of the complexities of an evolving, long-term friendship.
Beth Kephart has a gift for voicing thoughtful, eloquent teens, and Georgia is no exception - the author made the heart and mind of this sixteen-year-old thoroughly vivid to me, and drew me fully into what she was experiencing. She also never wavered in conveying the narrative voice as that of a teen - I never felt that Georgia's voice was more adult than it should be. And as in her previous novel, Nothing But Ghosts, Kephart again shows her understanding that a summer can be just as significant to the learning and growth of a teenager as the school year.
The project that Georgia and Riley join is much like one Kephart participated in with her own church group, and the author's familiarity and fascination with the setting and circumstances made them just as fascinating to me - and to be honest, I wasn't sure they would be. I really wasn't drawn to the premise of The Heart is Not a Size initially. What drew me to the book was a knowledge and appreciation of the quality of Kephart's writing, my trust in the author's ability to make me connect with her story...and the good things other book bloggers had to say about this novel.