Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty, Cara Hoffman's provocative second novel offers a window into events we'd prefer to see less clearly. A soldier, Lauren Clay, returns from her tour of duty in Iraq. She struggles to adjust to civilian life. Her family and friends strive for jovial fakery because they cannot bear to consider what she has experienced.
"(T)hey were supposed to pretend, even as they lived in the shadow of the base, and heard reports from places like Fallujah, or read about disastrous brutal homecomings, they were supposed to pretend that what she did was some angel's work in hell."
A former investigative reporter now teaching at Bronx Community College, Hoffman has a knack for getting to the heart of critical contemporary issues. Her haunting first novel, So Much Pretty — about a young woman who goes missing in a rural town — is a devastating look at violence against women and the complicated landscape of vengeance. Disguised as a crime story, it presents the sort of rigorous moral questions that have no easy answers and sear themselves in your memory.
Be Safe I Love You is similar in that regard, its characters finely crafted and its insights into human strength and frailty pointed. Like its predecessor, the novel is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions. Be Safe I Love You is suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it's also a call to action, 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 system that pulls young men and women into cauldrons like Vietnam and Iraq and spits them back broken is the problem. 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 wisecracking, trusting 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, nor her ex-boyfriend Shane, a Swarthmore student home to visit his blue-collar family for the holidays, understand how Lauren has changed. Even a 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 mine fields loom for Lauren.