Brendan Kiely has spent a lot of time on the road. At 19, he went in search of love (and got turned down) on an epic road trip with his buddy Ted (who also got turned down). In college, he participated in a Freedom Summer re-enactment that stretched from Oxford, Ohio, to Oxford, Mississippi. His own parents practically sent him away to “go find the real America.”
“Young people, especially teens, are so eager to get the hell away from home,” Kiely says, laughing, in a call to his home in Greenwich Village. “I certainly was, and I needed to get out.”
So it makes sense that when I ask about the title of his new book, The Last True Love Story, his answer boils down to, “There is no love story. There’s the journey.” Love is not something you find, he explains. It’s something you create or discover when you’re on your own.
Kiely frequently draws his stories from some of the most intimidating, hot-button issues in today’s headlines, tragedies that are sometimes easier to ignore than to acknowledge, let alone fix. In 2014, Kiely hit hard with his young adult debut, The Gospel of Winter, about a teen boy who’s betrayed and abused by the local priest. He took on another controversial subject with All American Boys (2015), his Coretta Scott King Honor-winning collaboration with Jason Reynolds about race and police brutality. His forthcoming fourth novel, You Keep the Sky from Falling (2017), stars three teens whose friendships are threatened by a dangerous school tradition that encourages date rape. To Kiely, writing is an act of social engagement, but he always moves beyond the headlines to honor the people behind the events.
While Kiely’s third novel, The Last True Love Story, addresses some issues of race and sexism, it’s primarily concerned with the one thing we hope will save us: love. “It’s a book about family love, first love and trying to make love last forever,” Kiely says. And as the three characters at its heart make this epic road trip together, they learn how to love themselves, too.
Readers meet 17-year-old Teddy Hendrix somewhere west of Albuquerque, stranded in the desert with a flat tire. It’s a hopeless moment: He and a girl named Corinna are partway through a runaway odyssey. They’re smuggling Hendrix’s grandfather, Gpa, who has Alzheimer’s, from his assisted living facility in Los Angeles to take him to his former home in Ithaca, New York, one last time.
Readers then flash back to where it all began, in L.A., where Gpa’s eyes glaze over more and more often, Hendrix’s mother is always absent and working, and just-graduated, guitar-playing Corinna is looking for an escape. So they steal Hendrix’s mom’s car and head east. “They’re getting out of the city of dreams,” Kiely says, “and they’re heading out to find themselves and find ‘real’ love, as opposed to the dream version of it.”
Throughout this trip, Hendrix adds entries to the Hendrix Family Book (HFB), transcribing stories from his grandfather’s life in an effort to uphold his promise to never let Gpa forget his late wife, Betty. But the HFB is also a way for Hendrix to make sense of what love is, how it works and how to hold onto it. He’s also looking for some much-needed answers about his father, who died years ago after leaving Hendrix’s mom for another woman.
“As a teacher, I would often hear students . . . talk about their family legend with this reverence, and in some ways it was their personal mythology,” says Kiely, who taught high school English for 10 years before quitting to write full time. “I think Hendrix is searching for those family stories to give himself a foundation. . . . He’s lost, and he’s looking for the stories of his family to ground him.”
Of course, no road trip is complete without a soundtrack, and fierce Corinna provides the perfect playlist. Corinna may be strong and cool, but she’s also broken down by the fact that her white parents, who adopted her from Guatemala, refuse to be honest about race in any real way. “She plays bands with strong female vocalists, bands that are diverse,” Kiely explains. “I think that music is an empowerment tool throughout the whole book.”
Music empowers Gpa as well, providing a lifeline to his memories. Music is such an effortless language for Corinna that she’s able to anchor Gpa to reality through classic rock ’n’ roll of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era—music originally introduced to him by Betty.
Little does Corinna know that this connection dovetails with real-life research into music therapy and Alzheimer’s. “Music is used as a salve,” Kiely says. “If you play a particular song for them—often it might be a church hymn—they tap back into memories and are ‘more alive.’ The memory of music resides in a different part of the brain than our long-term memory.”
The Last True Love Story is dedicated to Kiely’s grandmother, who for years hid from her large Irish family that Kiely’s grandfather had Alzheimer’s. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, Kiely, his grandmother, grandfather and uncle traveled to Ireland to find the family farm, from which Kiely’s great-grandparents emigrated. “It was a romantic idea and full of good intentions,” Kiely says, “but as you can imagine, it was not the smartest idea, and there were certainly moments that were very disorienting for him. I remember those very clearly, but I was grateful to be a part of it.”
In the United States alone, there are approximately 5 million people with Alzheimer’s. And as Kiely points out, if there are 5 million afflicted, think of how many family members are affected. “I wanted to write this book for all of the young people who have family members [with Alzheimer’s], who have to grapple with this, and remind everybody that even though someone has a disease like this, there’s still a lot we can learn from them.”