Inventing Savannah, the first collaboration by Susan Shapiro Barash and Joanne Lara, contains hints of a story that could have been entertaining and even deeply moving, had it not been for extremely poor writing, a complete lack of subtly, consistency, or likable characters, and a spattering of elements that never fit in, as if the book is missing a large chunk and the authors forgot to finish it.
Savannah Dreyden is a public defender, one of the only good and honest ones in Atlanta, to hear her tell it. She’s just received a new case, defending a UPS delivery man accused of murder. But she knows right away that Tucker Johnston’s innocent. Why? Because he’s so civilized. He reads poetry. Apparently she’s never seen Silence Of The Lambs. But in this instance, she happens to be correct.
Tucker’s a good guy. In one of the first scenes of the book, he’s completing his final delivery of the day when he hears a child’s screams coming from the seemingly empty house. He investigates, and finds a four year old girl being raped by her stepfather, Robert Atkins. He jumps on Atkins in a rage, and a bloody fight ensues. When Atkins rushes at him, Tucker grabs the girl and gets out of the way. Atkins runs into a bedpost and apparently kills himself by accident (how this is accomplished by running into a bedpost is unclear – must be one strong bed post, and Atkins must have had one heck of a running start. But I digress). Tucker calls the police, and in short order finds himself being framed for both murder and child molestation. How anyone would hope to pin child molestation on him in this day and age, with DNA testing available is beyond me, but apparently the perpetrator isn’t that bright. Although everyone else seems to think it’s feasible, so maybe it’s not just the criminal who’s not so bright. Question is, who’s trying to frame Tucker, and why?
Now Savannah’s got to prove that Tucker’s innocent when everyone seems determined to prevent her from doing so, including her old boss, the DA. Why on earth would he want to scare her off? Well, if you can slog through the bad writing, you’ll no doubt guess the answer to that by the fifth chapter or so, at the very latest. As with a number of “revelations” in the book, this one’s not too hard to figure out.
Savannah, it seems, has other problems as well. There’s a husband from whom she’s separated, but somehow she’s still addicted to him. She’s concerned that her son Billy will come to love Cash more than her, since he’s “the fun one,” despite the fact that he’s unemployed, a drug addict, and completely irresponsible, usually missing opportunities to spend time with his son altogether so that he can play another hand of poker, do another line of coke, and screw another stripper. At the same time, she never spends any real time with Billy throughout the book, and regrets that fact only fleetingly, despite her assertions that she loves him and is not a neglectful mom. In fact, between her relationship with her abusive husband and her almost non-relationship with her son, she comes off as being emotionally needy and distant at the same time. Instead of the strong, assertive woman we’re supposed to think she is, she seems more like a selfish, whiny, pitiful wannabe-martyr.
In addition to these problems, Savannah is determined to find her birth parents, since she was adopted at a young age. Her adoptive parents, whom we’re told are loving and supportive, act as if she’s betraying them by wanting to learn about her biological family. She responds by acting almost guilty, yet at the same time she doesn’t seem overly bothered by it.
While we’re on the topic of the adoption, there are some other big problems with that part of the story. Savannah’s been seeing a therapist, who hypnotizes her so that she can remember her birth family. Problem? She was 10 months old when she was taken by the state. Yet she has extensive memories of her birth family, albeit ones that are buried in her unconscious. Not only is this highly unlikely to begin with (not even addressing the highly fallible nature of such hypnosis) but the attention span and perceptive abilities of a 10 month old are not even taken into consideration. Savannah and her therapist both fully believe that she can recall events from that age, despite the fact that she probably couldn’t even have been aware of the events she “remembers,” let alone be able to comprehend them.
But there are many more demerits for unbelievability. When the prison guards act suspicious that Tucker and Savannah’s relationship seems to be verging off into personal, Savannah steers the conversation to literature and poetry. I guess actually talking about the case would be a dead giveaway. And in the first scene of the book, the main character is getting on a bus in New York City (in a completely out-of-place and inappropriate scene), and we’re supposed to believe that New Yorkers stop and watch her, that she gains their attention with her gentle nature. Now, I’m fairly certain that there are any number of gentle-natured people living in NYC. But it takes a lot more than that to get noticed in New York. And lastly, when Savannah flees to her parents house after an abusive confrontation with Cash, whom she refuses to lock out of the house, her loving father thinks it’s a good idea to invite Cash to a social function as her guest without consulting her, something we’re supposed to be upset at, but not find terribly strange. It’s completely out of character, and why it’s there is beyond me.
And then there are the inconsistencies. In the first scene of the book, she’s receiving therapy in which she clearly recalls being separated from her mother (at 10 months of age). Problem? It takes place in 1979, while she later reports, in 1996, that she’s only been in therapy for eighteen months. Also, there’s an episode that she “remembers” when she was about two, and being tested for intelligence, while sitting on her mother’s lap. Which would be difficult, since she didn’t see her mother after being the initial separation. And then, perhaps under the heading of merely “annoying,” there is the fact that characters are continually remarking on the strong physical resemblance between Tucker and Cash, but the book never goes anywhere with it. Which is very odd, since a large number of the revelations in the book hinge on biological relationships, and the authors repeatedly seem to be hinting at one between Cash and Tucker, who just happens to be adopted as well.
All in all, Inventing Savannah is an incredibly frustrating book, because the authors have taken what could so easily have been a meaty and memorable, even heart-rending read, and turned it into a largely unreadable volume of supposed “surprises” and unlikable characters. Pass on this one; it would only frustrate you, too.