The Girl She Left Behind
I enjoyed The Girl She Left Behind much more while I was reading it than after I finished it. The whole narrative seemed to be building up to a momentous conclusion that, well, that just never materialized.
Katherine “Kat” Earle left her small Montana hometown of Silver Creek when she was eighteen. She eloped with musician Stephen McKittrick, leaving behind her best friend Jen, her Great-Aunt Eva who raised her, and her Uncle Charles who didn’t. Four years later, she’s back, broke, without Stephen, and without any clear understanding of why she returned.
Kat tells her story of coming home in an angst-ridden first person present tense, with past tense reserved for those reminiscences of incidents that occurred before her return. This makes the book easy and fast reading, with a sense of immediacy and real time. The reader really is in Kat’s head. But when you reach the end and all the angst remains and few of the questions have been answered, you start to wonder why author Brichoux bothered.
The problem I had with Kat is two-fold: first, she didn’t seem real and second, I didn’t like her. If there were more to the story than Kat’s wondering why she came back, the problems with characterization might not loom so large, but this is All About Kat, scion of the founding family and friendless high school homecoming queen. That’s what I mean about not seeming real – homecoming queen isn’t something your rich family buys for you, not even in a small town.
The supporting cast, and this book is all about people, not events, comes across a little better. I really liked Gwen, Kat’s neighbor who grew up in a strict religious family and then rebelled by having a child out of wedlock – and not identifying the father. The irony that the town preacher is in love with Gwen suggests a fascinating story line, but Brichoux doesn’t explore it very deeply.
And there’s Melody, who runs the Silver Spur Motel where Kat bunks for a while. Melody’s swollen, arthritic legs won’t allow her to do all the housekeeping around the motel, so she offers Kat slave wages ($3.50 per room) to help out. Slave wages seem to be the norm in Silver Creek, since cleaning motel rooms and tending bar at the Watering Hole still isn’t enough to provide Kat with the $15-a-day rent at the motel, thus forcing her into the least-acceptable housing arrangement – moving into the ancestral home with Great-aunt Eva.
The finest portrait is Lil, owner of the Watering Hole. Lil is the one character with whom Kat establishes a solid relationship, the kind that hints at a real future and a solution to at least some of Kat’s problems. In some ways I think Kat herself understands this, but in other ways, she doesn’t, and that may be the reality of being 22 and angst-ridden.
But there are others who don’t work as well: Uncle Charles is as neurotic as Kat, with no more resolution than she. Why is he the way he is? We never find out. Great-aunt Eva is a caricature of the proud, arrogant stuffy spinster. Summer Jones, runner-up in that homecoming queen race, is spiteful and shallow, perhaps because “the four years between now and the last day of high school haven’t been kind to Summer Jones.” And then there’s Jen, the once-upon-a-time best friend, who switched loyalties in a way that just didn’t ring true. She’s become a whiny hypocrite, criticizing Kat for the same things she’s doing herself. If Jen was supposed to elicit sympathy, not only for herself but for the Kat who used to be, she failed.
Then again, so did Kat. She’s a girl who is always writing down other people’s poetry and never writing any of her own. I could have understood her constant soul-searching if there had been any hint of her actually finding out why she is the way she is and why she did and does the things she did and does. She spends enough time thinking about it, worrying about it, wondering about it, but she never achieves any kind of reconciliation with the girl she was four years ago. And at only 22, Kat is too young to feel as though there is only the past without a future.
In that respect, she seemed much older than her stated age, but her inability to reach some decision about her life left me wanting to slap some sense into her and tell her to stop whining. When her “old love” shows up – unexpectedly and very near the end of the book – and she tries to make a tenuous relationship viable, again I wanted to tell her, kiddo, you’re only fooling yourself.
But perhaps that’s what youth is for.
The ending is happy, with a weak and implausible romantic reconciliation that’s of the “happy for the moment if not ever after” variety. I give them a couple months at best. Maybe that’s enough.