In the novel “Be Safe I Love You,” author and journalist Cara Hoffman offers a convincing portrait of working-class families, war, and mental illness with prose that is raw, haunting, and vividly present.
After returning from Iraq after two years, everything about her hometown feels off to Lauren Clay — all high definition but flat like she’s watching it from a camera lens or a periscope. Her father, high school boyfriend, childhood best friend, and old vocal coach all alienate her by imposing on her the identity of the girl she used to be. Even her Vietnam vet godfather, PJ, doesn’t get—or doesn’t remember—how the trauma of war can change a person’s identity and priorities.
Lauren has no interest in salvaging or reimagining any of these relationships, though. Danny, her 13-year-old brother, is the person Lauren came home for. Bright, witty, and full of the potential that she surrendered for his sake, Danny was also the reason Lauren went to Iraq—so he could have the opportunities that she didn’t.
After their mom left and their dad slipped into a debilitating depression, Lauren is left to provide for her and her brother. She takes light bulbs from the fixtures at friends’ houses or the reading lamps at the library, toilet paper from the girls’ room at school, and needle and thread from the Home Ec. department to make their old, worn clothes last a little longer. She built a safe, loving world within the one that was crumbling around them, doing her best to shield him from the debris.
Lauren learned at an early age to put on a brave face and be the person she or others needed her to be in any given situation. Her mask is so convincing that nobody recognizes how severe her post-traumatic stress is until she disappears with Danny into the Canadian wilderness where she wants to create for them a fairytale world and save him again. Lauren doesn’t recognize that this time the world that is unraveling is inside her.
Hoffman does for upstate New York what Faulkner did for the American South; she makes the setting come alive with a power that transforms Watertown into character in and of itself, imbuing the novel with a mythical, regional realism. Although the ending is abrupt and a bit convenient, “Be Safe I Love You“ is a a bold, haunting portrait of a soldier and a caretaker.
Author and journalist Cara Hoffman will join fellow authors Roxana Robinson and Artis Henderson for a talk entitled “Women Writers on the Cost of Combat” moderated by author Amanda Eyre Ward at 2 p.m. in the west terrace of the Central Library (third floor).
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