I’m cheating this week. The truth is that I’m still knee-deep (waist-deep I guess, since I’m about halfway through) on The Broom of the System, which is frustrating since it’s the end of the year, i.e. book goal crunch time, and I have big reading/blogging plans for the next few weeks (re-reading Perks of Being of Wallflower, first-time reading Les Miserables and writing some sort of roundup of my favorites of 2012.) But it’s David Foster Wallace, and proper respect must be paid — by which I mean I’m willing to backtrack four times per reading session to make sure I haven’t lost the thread of characters I’m supposed to know about, or connections I’m supposed to have identified. I swear on Honey Boo Boo that I will finish that book this week, especially since I’m officially finished crushing two full seasons of Downton Abbey.
In the meantime, a few weeks ago I finished The Big Girls, by Susanna Moore. I picked this one up at The Strand (I wouldn’t remember things like this except all my Strand books have $1 price tags on them) since I’d read Moore’s In the Cut years ago, and vaguely remember liking it (actually, I remember very little about the book, and more about the eventual movie made from it, which I saw with my mom, which entailed very awkwardly sitting together to watch Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo have lots of sex.) Also, see the aforementioned $1—at that price, I’ll buy any book that doesn’t have biologically questionable stains on it.
The Big Girls takes place at the Sloatsburg Correctional Institute, a women’s prison, where protagonist-of-sorts Helen is serving a life sentence for the murder of her children. Also at Sloatsburg are Dr. Louise Forrest, the prison’s chief psychiatrist; corrections officer Ike Bradshaw; Hollywood actress (and current girlfriend of Dr. Forrest’s ex-husband) Angie, and a bevy of other minor characters, including my personal favorite, Officer Cready, whose primary appearances in the book come from Dr. Forrest relaying his monthly tips on life/prison (for example, “Schizophrenics are one percent of the worldwide population. Check it out. The important thing is to be able to pick one out in a crowd.” Just saying, this is the guy I’d be getting a beer with.)
The Big Girls is told in short bursts, from the various perspectives of its various characters. Said bursts aren’t preceded by any sort of introduction, so that as a reader you’re left to fend for yourself in deciphering who exactly is speaking, something that gets easier as the book wears on but that I at first found tricky. TBG is in some respects a commentary on the prison system, for women in particular, but not aggressively so, and maybe not even intentionally. More than anything, it’s an exploration of the complex relationships between a group of people who might otherwise be (and in some sense are) strangers: Captain Bradshaw has a thing for Dr. Forrest, who is preoccupied to the point of distraction with Helen’s case, who is herself caught up in the unique complexities of ingratiating oneself in a prison community. And I guess prison is weird in this way: People from all walks of life sharing small spaces, under odd circumstances, with a hierarchy and class system that are both completely foreign to and somehow also representative of the world at large.
TBG is an okay book. Despite having divided the novel’s narration among them, Moore doesn’t seem overly concerned with developing her characters through their storytelling, so that at times they all seem to blend together (save for varying degrees of sanity). And although Moore has been praised for her willingness to explore the seedier bits of dark/sexual/darkly sexual behavior—In the Cut was about the Meg Ryan protagonist sleeping with the Mark Ruffalo protagonist even though she suspects him of murder—I didn’t find The Big Girls to be at all revolutionary on this score. Sure, Helen killed her kids, and that’s terrible and makes it weird when you don’t necessarily hate her as a character, but she’s also very clearly crazy, a mental state that makes it hard to feel like Moore is asking readers for much by way of suspending our moral scruples.
TBG is like a Lionel Shriver novel without all the nuance, or character development, or wildly skilled (intimidatingly skilled) presentation of thought-provoking issues. It’s mostly just a novel, with moderately gloomy characters and moderately sinister overtones. It’s a bummer, but not in any sort of innovative way. It’s, I don’t know, meh.
TITLE: The Big Girls
AUTHOR: Susanna Moore
PAGES: 224 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: In the Cut, The Life of Objects
SORTA LIKE: Jennifer Egan meets Lionel Shriver, minus 75% of the quality
FIRST LINE: “Sloatsburg Correctional Institution, a walled complex of seven large stone buildings, sits on the west bank of the Hudson River.”