I stumbled across this and it sounded in theory like something I’d be very interested in: a novel about a soldier coming back from Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD (a subject I’ve been researching and reading about for years now as I struggle with my own work on a similar subject), and even better, the solider is a woman (as is the author, obviously), and that’s a demographic that’s badly underrepresented in literature. In my “Uses of History” class, during the unit on war’s continuing effects on returned soldiers, I always teach Sigrid Nunez’s great For Rouenna; it’s one of the very few novels I know of that takes up the lingering effects of war on women who’ve served. Even more, reviews of Hoffman’s novel promised that she also incorporated the realities of class in Be Safe I Love You; the returned soldier, Lauren Clay, enlisted out of a sense of economic responsibility to her family. This too is an aspect too often missing from contemporary war literature and film. I’ve looked at a lot of novels, stories, plays, journalism, documentary films, and fictional films about soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; not many focus on veterans’ economic realities.
So this was ticking a lot of boxes for me before I even started it, and I was anxious I’d be disappointed because I tend toward disappointment. The novel begins slowly, and drags a bit as Hoffman somewhat methodically gets all her characters and settings into position for the first 150 pages or so, but the second half of the book really pays off. Lauren Clay is the most reliable and self-sufficient person in town, and everyone — her family and friends — has come to rely on her and take her steadiness for granted. When the damage done to her in war begins to seep through her facade of competency, it’s terrifying for those who love her, and you feel it too.
Deceptively simple book. Hoffmans wears her politics and knowledge very lightly. The Joan of Arc oilfield. The ghost dog Sebastian. Lots of small touches.
I find the marketing for this book interesting. The intertwined hands on the cover, and the treacly title . . . what’s that about?