Running: A Novel by Cara Hoffman

Running by Cara Hoffman
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: February 21st 2017
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Literary
three-half-stars

running

 

It’s 1988 when Bridey first meets Jasper but when Running begins it’s with the news of his death. She is back in Athens, the place where she, Jasper and Jasper’s boyfriend Milo worked as runners—someone young and pretty who corrals tourists on the trains heading into Athens, regaling them with the beauty and savings of the hotels where they work, leading them to that hotel and getting paid a finder’s fee after the unwitting tourist has checked into what is actually a dump. Each of this trio found themselves in Greece for a different reason—either running away from an old life or running to a new one. As the novel trips between narrators, times and places, it becomes clear that running is the one thing that defines them.

Author Cara Hoffman sets the stage beautifully in Running. Both Bridey and Milo have histories that poignantly give a sense of how they’ve come to be where they are. It is Jasper who is the enigma. Unlike his friends, his past is not one of abandonment or loss or even a search for identity. He is the errant son of well-to-do British parents for whom experience, be it grand or degrading, is his reason for being. He is the tinder to the flame of their group–fueling their adventures, but with a recklessness that is dangerous and can’t last.

In contrast to Jasper’s wild fragility as fuel, Bridey is the accelerant in their lives. She burns hot and fast, leaving ash and a longing for the heat she once brought to life. In their time together she is with both Jasper and Milo. Yet, for as clearly as Hoffman defines her, her motivations are vague. We know much of what she does, but very little of why. The same is true of Milo. He’s the most acted-upon character, a poet and teacher, but also the one who stays and is left time and again, which may be why he’s the present day narrator.

What I loved about Running was Hoffman’s descriptive force. She put such depth and precision into her characters that even when I didn’t understand them, I cared what happened to them.  What was harder for me was a tweaking of reality and the timeline that left those same characters and some plot points hanging. I appreciate ambiguity in my fiction—it leaves room for the readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks and makes for great book discussion, but too much feels like deliberate and unwelcome vagueness—not a trait I usually associate with the careful Hoffman.

A streak of self-destruction cuts a wide swath through Running. Bridey, Jasper and Milo seem to share nothing in common but a nihilistic view of the world and their place in it. By overlaying the natural beauty of Greece with the squalor and viciousness of the protagonists’ lives Hoffman saturates the novel with a melancholic and discordant atmosphere. And even though Milo narrates from twenty-five years after the fact, Running reminds me of a Lord of the Flies and Suddenly, Last Summer mashup. Feral youth, an exotic locale and no one is getting out unscathed.

three-half-stars

Be Safe I Love You

Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: April 1st 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult
three-half-stars

 be safe i love you

Even before she decides to go to Iraq Lauren Clay is fighting a war. A war created by two parents who, for different reasons, are unable to care for her and her nine-year-old brother, Daniel. Instead, Lauren is left, at age 14 to take care of herself, her brother and her father, who lies in bed and cries. Despite having a prodigious talent as a coloratura soprano and having been accepted at a major music school, when the foreclosure notices arrive on their house, Lauren gives up her hopes for her future and signs up for the Marines. Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman begins when Lauren returns after her tour of duty and finds a world that is both familiar and unknown.

Hoffman does an admirable job at portraying the almost impossible transition from solider to civilian. As Lauren struggles to adapt back into her previous life there are simply too many elements that no longer add up—her father is working now and taking care of her brother, Daniel has become a normal teen attached to his phone and PC, and Shane, the love of her life, is a college student and moving in a world as foreign to her as Iraq once was. How she reconciles these changes and where she sees her place in her old world are the crux of Be Safe I Love You. If underneath the sameness of everyday life there is a much larger trauma that colors her perceptions, Lauren is determined not to show it and, indeed, she doesn’t seem to know it herself. At best,

…she now knew the difference between never and always was small. Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create. 

It is not just Lauren’s point-of-view we see but also those of her friends and the people around her in the small military town of Watertown, New York. For her boyfriend, Shane, who is home on school break, there is the confusion of the Lauren he knew and this lean, commanding presence who feels like a stranger. He also struggles to re-acclimate to his small town life and the fact that his mother continues to take care of his uncles—all grown men physically but all unwilling to grow up. 

Patrick was so ignorant he didn’t even understand the fundamentals of his own poverty, had created a mystique and heroism around it, made it about being looked down upon by professors who were suddenly shocked to learn of his genius, exploited by some phantom elite, even as he was paying the Guinness and Marlboro empires for his own death on credit. 

For Lauren, it is only as events and people do not respond as she expects, even demands, that her tightly wound core begins to unravel. Still, she must be in control and even as she realizes that

The woman she was supposed to be, was meant to be, would have been, could never exist at all now, and she was stuck dragging around this ruined version of herself. 

she thinks it means only that she must continue to give up her life for all the lives around her. On the one hand, she wants nothing more than to go back to the past but she also longs for a future she has constructed in her own mind.

While Lauren is the main story, Hoffman also illuminates the role of women in all spheres as both the strength and the nurturing side of life. The men are not evil but it is the women getting things done, carrying the weight, and acknowledging the realities of life. This provides an interesting point-of-view to a novel about a subject largely considered to be the purview of men. Ultimately, Be Safe I Love You neutralizes the question of gender when it comes to warfare. The powerful and timely issues being asked in the novel are: what are we doing to young people when sending them far away to fight in shifting, unending conflicts? And how are we prepared to help them when/if they make it back?  For Lauren, there are no easy answers and she’s left to find her own way home.

three-half-stars