Nearly every film adaptation of Wuthering Heights omits the latter parts of the novel, which show how the emotional failings of one generation can wreak havoc on the next. Benjamin Nugent’s fiction debut, Good Kids, focuses on that second part, how the second generation responds to the emotional trauma and either fights against it or falls victim to it in the same way.
Nugent divides the novel into three parts. In the first, set in 1994, Josh Paquette and Khadijah Silverglate-Dunn are high-school sophomore classmates who discover Josh’s father and Khadijah’s mother are having an affair. The second part follows Josh through his young adulthood; after his father leaves the family, Josh plays in a band and moves to Los Angeles. The third sees Josh struggling to reconcile his latent feelings for Khadijah when chance brings her back into his life.
Good Kids has been marketed by highlighting how Josh and Khadijah catch their parents kissing in a Whole Foods-type store, then sign a pledge to never cheat on anyone ever, then meet again when both are engaged to other people. It’s a clever advertising conceit, except it isn’t really what the book is about. Josh is the narrator through the entire story, and as he falls in love with Julie, a nature-show host in Los Angeles, the story pivots and juxtaposes Josh with his father, an absent man focused on an essay collection he’ll never write, living off the fortune of his second wife’s parents.
Nugent tosses in a mélange of references, from architecture, philosophy, and art history to indie rock and reality television. Thankfully, the mixture feels strangely harmonious instead of pretentious. Josh can pull Buddhist and Jungian influences into his life from his mother, John Donne and other haughty writers from his father, then tie it all up with Kurt Cobain and Arcade Fire. This combination sounds overstuffed, but it isn’t. Nugent navigates the various influences with a sure hand, and also manages to weave together characters with vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds and political leanings without letting the story unravel.
But it all feels a bit slight. It would be too artificial for the story to bookend neatly, and it’s so pessimistic about children’s ability to rectify their parents’ failures that it can’t end in a (500) Days Of Summer modern rom-com fashion. In that regard, Nugent constructs a thoroughly modern and thoughtful novel about how difficult it can be to really click with another person.
Ultimately, Nugent leaves behind the question of whether Josh will become his father, whether Josh and Khadijah will reunite, or whether they will destroy everything around them. By dropping those larger plot questions, he ends up with an intriguing central character surrounded by an array of interesting friends and family members, but no discernable arc or strong point to make. Like Josh’s adolescent feelings for Khadijah, it’s a lot of emotional buildup with no consummation.