Fiction Baby Love A young mother tries to undo some bad decisions.
Reviewed by Carrie BrownSunday, January 18, 2004; Page BW05
GIRLS IN TROUBLE
By Caroline Leavitt. St. Martin's. 356 pp. $24.95
Caroline Leavitt is a columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of eight novels, including her addictive newest, Girls in Trouble. Leavitt's books are often praised for being readable, but sometimes this commendation can sound like faint praise, as if being readable, like being charming, is not a serious attribute. We like "readable," but maybe we don't respect it -- it is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of potato chips or ice cream. To dismiss novels that are readable as inherently lightweight, however, is a mistake. "Literature," said Iris Murdoch, "is meant to be grasped by enjoyment."
The success of Girls in Trouble is that it is both a page-turner and also a canny portrait of the trouble perfectly ordinary people can get into while trying to satisfy their perfectly ordinary needs for love and security and happiness. The pleasure of this novel, our "enjoyment" of it, comes from Leavitt's wisdom about the deep chasm of misfortune, her exploration of misfortune's steep slope and her recognition that climbing out of misfortune's pit, step by arduous step, requires a heroism that literature, with its capacity for rendering the elevated quality of ordinary experience, can portray so beautifully.
Sara Rothman is the beloved only child of Abby and Jack. She is lovely to look at, she's been raised to be decent and ambitious, and she's smart -- bound for Harvard, she and her parents hope. But she's not smart enough; or rather, she's just human enough to fall in love with a boy and discover herself pregnant at 16. Young love is dangerous territory for writers -- a potential minefield of clichés -- but Leavitt handles Sara and Danny's infatuation with dignity and tenderness. "He kissed her stomach, her knees, knobby as teacups, her feet, her hair. She had never had a real boyfriend before. She wasn't quite sure what to do, where to put her hands, her legs, her mouth. 'Wait,' she said.' "
The young occasionally possess good instincts that adults, with all their experience, cannot appreciate. It is too late for an abortion, and Sara, guided by her heart and against her parents' wishes, chooses a set of parents for her baby. Together they decide on an open adoption; at first, everything about George and Eva heartens Sara, who is desperately in need of heartening. Their house is filled with light and sunshine and comfortable old chairs and Oriental rugs. Sara and Eva bake bread together, share books, laugh and talk. "Eva and George wouldn't let her lift a finger, even though she told them it was good for her to be active, though the truth was she just wanted to be so busy, she wouldn't think about what was happening to her. Eva had cooked her huge, elaborate, healthy meals. . . . George was always popping into the car to pick up whatever it was she had a yen for. Chocolate ice cream. Ginger tea. Soft slippers in size six because her feet hurt."
Along with their good instincts, the young are also possessed of bad judgment, however, and Sara does one very foolish thing. Eva and George, smitten with their new baby and overwhelmed by the task of parenting, grow impatient with Sara's dependence on them. But Sara, desperate to discover a role for herself in the altered universe of being a teenage mother, rather than a normal high school student, kidnaps her baby. That act, and everything that follows from it, begins the harrowing span of years that Leavitt, in her wisdom, understands as the truth about misfortune: It's rarely over and done with quickly. Socked-in misery is familiar territory for literature, and Leavitt gives us the years following Sara's moment of bad judgment -- and all the consequences that follow from that bad judgment -- with patience and understanding.
Sara grows up, as does her baby, as do Danny, and George and Eva, and Sara's parents, Abby and Jack. Their collective reconciliation, when it comes, is as fraught with difficulty as was their estrangement. It is no small accomplishment to portray the lives of decent people and their poor choices in such a way that we continue to care about what happens to them; the arc of their conflict, like so many conflicts in life, is deceptively uneventful. Only a patient novelist understands the pleasure -- and the suspense -- of moving towards this slow and modest conclusion. The characters in Girls in Trouble are blazingly knowable, and it is Leavitt's sympathy that gives her novel both its page-turning momentum and its dignity. •
Carrie Brown's most recent books are the novel "The Hatbox Baby" and a story collection, "The House on Belle Isle." She teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
Causes Caroline Leavitt Supports
The Writers' Strike Writers Against the War PETA