If you had asked me on page 75 what this novel was about, I would have said, “I don’t know. This solider, Lauren, comes home from Iraq. She’s really close to her younger brother. Her father is this old hippie who can barely take care of himself. She has vague plans to meet up with a guy named Daryl that she knew in the service.” But that isn’t a story, that’s background. There are a few omens. She is perhaps a little too sure that she is squared away and in control. When violence erupts on page 77, it is precise and shocking and forced me to rethink everything I knew about Lauren Clay and where this novel was going.
And that’s about all I’m going to say about plot and story. If I even tried to pigeonhole BE SAFE into a genre, I would be spoiling the ride. This is one of those cases where I have to say, “Trust me. You need to read this book.”
The friend who recommended BE SAFE to me compared it to the work of Megan Abbott, and that’s certainly a place to start. Both are great with family drama, both are unflinching in talking about teenagers, both are skilled at making you care for the imaginary beings that inhabit their novels. Hoffman in addition is a world class stylist, clean, clear, evoking scenes in pointillist detail, like this description of the airport where Lauren has just landed in the US after nine months in the desert:
Christmas music played from speakers mounted near the cameras beside the baggage claim. Beyond the sliding-glass doors rain baptized those who ran from the curb to meet their friends and relatives in the roped-off lobby beneath a faded blue and white sign reading simply: ARRIVALS. They came in dripping, disheveled, their faces shining or makeup running as they embraced and balanced packages and bags.
Lauren, ever vigilant, would of course notice the cameras right away. She would also see the cold rain as a blessing after all that heat and sand. Yet the roped-off lobby also separates Lauren from the other travelers, driving home the fact that nobody (by her choice) is there to meet her. The plain language goes down like cool water, not drawing attention to the heavy lifting it’s doing in the background, every choice of detail telling us a little more about who Lauren is.
And that question–who is she, really?–is what the book is about. It’s the question that her fate, and her brother’s, rests on. It’s to Hoffman’s immense credit that, right up to the final paragraphs, I didn’t know what the answer was going to be, and that I was stunned by how satisfying and believable that answer was.
I should stop here, but I feel compelled to point out that there is a lot of weeping in this novel. One person or another had tears streaming down his or her face for the latter part of it. (Oddly, this is the second book I’ve read this month with that problem.) The danger, of course, is that the characters do the crying for the reader, and pre-empt the reader’s own tears.
I cried anyway. This is an amazing, important book.