Beautifully written and unflinchingly honest, Cara Hoffman’s second novel offers a window into events we’d prefer to see less clearly. A soldier, Lauren Clay, returns from Iraq and struggles to adjust to civilian life. Her family and friends strive for jovial fakery because they cannot bear to consider what she has experienced.
Hoffman has a knack for getting to the heart of critical contemporary issues. Her haunting first novel, “So Much Pretty,” is a devastating look at violence against women and the complicated landscape of vengeance. Like its predecessor, “Be Safe I Love You” is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions (the working class being more directly affected by American warfare than anyone else). “Be Safe I Love You” is a terrific story, suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it’s also a heartfelt demand for us to pay closer attention to the costly fallout of violence.
Hoffman doesn’t point fingers at individuals who don’t know how to cope with such fallout; the problem is the system that pulls young men and women into cauldrons like Vietnam and Iraq and spits them back broken. Even so, the military can be an economic godsend for some: Lauren walked away from a promising singing scholarship and joined up to keep her mentally fragile father and 13-year-old brother Danny out of poverty.
Lauren’s father and Danny are thrilled she’s back and safe, unable to see much beyond their own relief. But they’re not the only people in Lauren’s circle unaware of how she’s reeling. Neither her best friend Holly, a single mom who stayed in town after graduation, nor her ex-boyfriend Shane, a Swarthmore student home to visit his blue-collar family for the holidays, understand how Lauren has changed. Even an old family friend who’s a Vietnam veteran doesn’t quite see that though there are no IEDs hidden along the muddy roads of their upstate New York town, other minefields loom for Lauren.
Lauren’s intention is to head to a remote part of Canada and get a job on the oil rigs with Daryl, a soldier she served with in Iraq, but she twists around restlessly, visiting old haunts, having brief, intense sex with Shane, then shoving him away. She grows more and more impatient when these people she used to love refuse to obey her. She could return to singing but rejects the idea, and the weight of her memories – what happened to her in Iraq? – winds the book’s tension ever tighter.
“Be Safe I Love You” moves at a steady, compelling pace, and Hoffman is wonderfully descriptive of Lauren’s feelings of alienation, how she roils between love and rage. The author takes the time to develop the secondary characters – particularly Shane, who has moved easily into his new world but finds himself drawn back to Lauren and Danny, who’s obsessed with Arctic exploration – and she deftly re-creates the secrets, truths and character of a blue-collar town.
How Lauren will ultimately cope turns out to be a powerful mystery as she and Danny head north and she plans to put her survival training to good use. But “Be Safe I Love You” is so much more than a thriller; it’s a novel about family and sacrifice, loss and redemption. “I often want to get rid of all the words, you know?” Lauren’s singing instructor says, musing on the musical pieces he loves. “They’re so silly. So hollow.” But if anything, Hoffman proves that words are often the real tools of survival in this flawed but still often golden world.