REVIEW: The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
Dear Brandy Colbert,
I’ve been meaning to read one of your books for a long time and when The Voting Booth was published I was struck by the cleverness of the concept. This romantic YA novel takes place over the course of one day—Election Day—with Marva Sheridan, an activist eighteen-year-old Black girl, helping Duke Crenshaw, a biracial boy the same age, vote after he discovers that his name isn’t on the voter rolls at their local polling station.
It’s the first chance to vote in an election for both of them. Marva is passionate about social justice causes and has been working hard canvassing and registering voters, so seeing another new voter turned away sticks in her craw. Duke thinks he simply mistook which precinct he is registered to vote in, so Marva offers him a ride to the other polling place.
Marva and Duke both have some issues in their lives. Marva’s white boyfriend, Alec, once at her side every step of the way and sharing her activism, now says he won’t be voting in what is the most consequential election of their lifetime. Marva is angry and baffled by this decision, and she has to decide how to respond.
Marva also has a popular Instagram account for her cat, Selma, under the name Eartha Kitty, and the account is hugely popular. No one outside her family and Alec knows that Marva is behind the account and she wants to keep it that way. She studies hard and wants to be taken seriously by college admissions departments, not dismissed as frivolous and lightweight.
Duke’s older brother Julian, an activist himself, was killed in a drive-by shooting two years before, and the Crenshaws are struggling to find a way toward each other through the wreckage and fragmentation of their family that followed.
Duke started drumming for therapy and is good enough now that he’s joined a band. Drugstore Sorrow has their first paying gig the evening of Election Day. But with the way his day is going, it’s not clear if Duke will make it in time for the performance.
Then there is the fact that Duke is in trouble with his parents. They have just discovered that he drove Ida, his fifteen-year-old sister, to a sit-in for abortion rights at the governor’s mansion. Ida didn’t ask their parents’ permission to attend and got arrested. Now Duke is in for a world of anger from them.
At first sight, Duke and Marva seem like opposites. Martha is driven and energetic, whereas Duke is laid back. Marva goes to a fancy prep school while Duke attends a public school that’s stereotyped as a place for “hoodlums and hooligans.” Marva is committed to getting into the best college that she (and Alec) can, while Duke hasn’t decided where to apply.
But they also share commonalities. Both are insightful and pick up on each other’s cues. Both feel voting is important. And each does generous kindnesses to the other even though they’ve only met that day.
When (after a break at a coffee shop and a run-in with an intrusive and overprivileged co-worker of Marva’s dad who is sure to tell him that Marva cut school) Duke and Marva arrive at the second polling place, it turns out that Duke is not listed on that station’s voter rolls either. They decide to proceed back to the original precinct where Duke can cast a provisional ballot. But when Selma / Eartha Kitty goes missing, their day is complicated further.
Will Selma be found? Will Duke arrive at his band’s’ gig on time? Will Marva and Alec break up? Will Marva and Duke act on the attraction they feel? And most importantly, will Duke succeed in casting a ballot—something that should be simple but, due to voter suppression, is a systemic hardship for people of color?
The Voting Booth is light for a book on voter suppression but that in no way prevents it from being meaningful. Not everything is heavy in the lives of POC and people in other marginalized groups. And for all its sweetness, the book doesn’t lack substance. It hits on social justice issues in a meaningful but never preachy way, and that’s not an easy balance to strike. In fact, I think that a lot of authors who incorporate social justice issues into their books could take note; this is how to make important points in a straightforward and organic way.
The characters are likable and sweet— Marva is spirited and passionate when it comes to her beliefs and Duke, for all that he is more laid back, appreciates and understands that passion. Duke’s still surface runs deep, and the more time Marva spends in his company, the more he surprises her and illuminates the challenges she faces with insights. He also finds ways to reciprocate her good deed in giving him a ride.
The book takes course over one day, a very intense day in which Marva and Duke not only get to know and like each other and to fight for the outcome of the election, but also tackle the big issues in their lives. For the most part, this is seamless, but there was one notable exception—a big conversation in Duke’s family felt shoehorned in.
The concept of establishing a new and romantic relationship over the course of one day is fresh—as far as other works that use it, I can only thing of a few: The Sun is Also a Star and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, which I have not read, and the 1995 movie Before Sunrise as well as its sequels. I have seen Before Sunrise and this is one is an equally sweet, charming and touching take.
The novel doesn’t mention who is on the ballot or where the story takes place. At first I wanted more information but as I read on, I realized that it was actually the perfect choice. In a subtle way, it makes the point that disenfranchisement happens everywhere.
A minor issue is that Marva has to process something difficult and her reaction was very mature and clear in perspective. That is Marva to the core, but nevertheless, I felt that she was too clear-eyed given that she was in a situation that would make most people very emotional.
I don’t have anything else negative to say about The Voting Booth. It was a fast, absorbing, entertaining read. Before reading it I would not have expected that a book constructed around voter suppression could be so much fun, but I’m happy to stand corrected. Readers, if you’re in the mood for a YA contemporary romance that is light but not fluffy, the The Voting Booth is a terrific choice. B+.
PS to readers: If you have voted in this election or are voting today, thank you.