Elizabeth, 15 years old, has taken the car and run away after a heated argument with her mother, Laura, which ended with Laura slapping Elizabeth. All Laura can do now is wait and hope and reminisce about her own adolescence. In a letter to her daughter, Laura lays out her past before her, hoping that somehow it’ll help the two connect.
And, thankfully, while it’s not a happy, pretty past, it’s also not something that’s truly horrifying. It’s honest in its reflections of the teenage years from an adult perspective. Nothing is sugar-coated, but there’s a reflectiveness to the prose, a weightiness that makes the actions of Laura’s youth — from her first, and only it seems, love affair to the loss of that love in Vietnam to her impulsive decision making to her strained relationships with her parents — seem less angst-ridden.
It also helped that the book was one long letter from mother to daughter. It would seem, with something like this, that there would be a self-help feel to it: Bishop, after all, is exploring the relationships between mothers and daughters, and (as I well know being on both sides of that equation) that is a tricky one. There is a need to be a parent, to set boundaries, to make sure that your daughter is safe. Yet, there is also a desire to connect as women, as people who have gone through (or will go through) many of the same experiences. It’s this tension that Bishop is exploring, I think, and the letter format pushed that tension more into the background, making it less of a central theme. It’s still there, it’s still present, but the book reads less like a “what to do when your girl goes astray” and more like a memoir, which helped.
Bishop writes quite elegantly, as well. It’s a slim novel, and never does it feel as if more — or less — should have been told. As a reader, you only find out about Elizabeth through incidental comments Laura makes, and that’s as it should be. It’s Laura’s story, Laura’s memories, and Bishop doesn’t do anything to take away from that. He also quite skillfully handles the passage of time, both flipping back from the present to the past as well as Laura’s traveling through high school. It doesn’t feel choppy or jumpy at all.
It is a surprisingly good novel, one that I can see myself dipping into and out of as my girls get older (and perhaps passing on to them).
Rated: Mild, for some tasteful teen sex (it’s an book aimed at adults), a brief reference to oral sex, instances of teen drinking, and some mild swearing.