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The Big Girls by Susanna Moore

A Bedtime Story for the Brave

There is a line towards the end of The Big Girls that comes from an unlikely source. The speaker is Angie, the Hollywood starlet who is counseling her boyfriend during a time of parental duress. She tells him that her acting teacher taught her that you must take responsibility before you can become an artist: all choices are meaningful only if you are responsible. It’s as if Angie had been reading Dante, with his introduction to the vestibule of Hell and all the people lying there unnamed because on Earth they had refused to make choices. Angie is not deep. Her most vivid memory is perhaps of learning how to cook ham with Coca Cola. She is not a “Big Girl” but she aspires to be one.

“The Big Girls” of Susanna Moore’s new novel reside at Sloatsburg prison in New York. Here you will find women like Darla who stabbed her boyfriend’s wife to death or Keesha, who robbed one S.U.V. too many. You’ll also find Helen, a young woman who cuts herself with her glasses, hears voices, writes fan letters, and can’t remember killing her own children.

Louise Forrest is the psychiatrist assigned to the Big Girls: a revolutionary unwilling to use inmates in pharmaceutical experiments as her predecessor had done and so dedicated to her profession that her husband had to leave her. Louise has a nine-year-old son named Ransom and she takes Klonopin when anxiety consumes her. When she finally starts using her husband’s farewell present, a vibrator named Oscar, you know Louise is on the verge of her own Big Girl move.

Also walking the halls is a former narcotics officer, Ike Bradshaw, who is one of the few men on staff at Sloatsburg who doesn’t expect anything from the inmates. The friendship between Louise and Ike progresses deeper, flooding Louise with memories of her own upbringing as her son embarks on a pre-adolescent move to pit his parents against each other.

The narrative weaves between these four principal voices: Louise, Ike, Angie and Helen. If you didn’t know the book was organized this way, you would have trouble navigating the novel. The four voices differ in context: you know that the voice talking about her son Ransom has to be Louise, or the voice talking about the upcoming Mexican TV series has to be Angie but the tempo and rhythm of the voices do not vary much. That is you don’t say “there’s a cello, there’s a violin, there’s a guitar” so much as “there’s an instrument playing different songs”.

In Dante’s world, the seventh circle of Hell is reserved for the Big Girls: the violent. Here you find those violent against themselves, violent against others, and violent against God. They are there because they lack the opposite of violence -- courage. They reside there because they continue to blame others for their place in the world. Seven hundred years later, this novel reminds, those who wonder why they are where they are, need only look up.

The Big Girls by Susanna Moore
Knopf
May 1, 2007
Hardcover, $24
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4190-9
224 pages