Dear Miss Metropolitan by Carolyn Ferrell
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Cultural, Literary
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I was a prisoner for so, so long. Years. How was that humanly possible? Why didn’t anyone find me? How had my page been torn out the book for so long?
Sometimes, when I finish a book, the review flies right out of my mind onto the page. Then there are the books that need to marinate, where putting words and thoughts together cohesively takes more time. This is where I find myself with Dear Miss Metropolitan, a debut novel written by Carolyn Ferrell. It’s a novel of immense creativity from an exciting new voice, but pulled from a dark story.
In the late 1990s two young teenagers, Fern and Gwin, are kidnapped in Queens, New York and held captive in a home for a decade. The first page of Dear Miss Metropolitan is a 2008 newspaper article detailing their rescue, along with a toddler belonging to another woman, Jesenia, who is no longer in the house. From there, we step back into the girls’ lives before they were taken. Both were girls on the periphery with mothers trying to provide, but with problems of their own and no fathers in sight—just boyfriends, some of whom were good while others were not. These are not girls free from trauma.
It’s very clear that Dear Miss Metropolitan is taken from the Castro kidnappings in Cleveland—multiple girls, a man known to his neighbors, years of imprisonment, and a similar outcome. From those bones Ferrell breathes life into her victims’ reality. A reality that includes being hung upside down, of being given magazine pictures of food in lieu of real food, and, due to boarded up windows, almost no sense of time passing. A level of torture and rape that leads them to disassociate and create their own labels for times and places that are too much to bear head on. They are trying to be Model Employees for the Boss Man. Once rescued, the habit sticks with Fern referring to the social worker who cares for them as Ms. Refuge and trying to separate Old Mind from New Mind.
The novel kept a firm grip on my attention until the girls’ rescue, as told from the perspective of an elderly woman living across the street. She writes an advice column for a local newspaper and is known as Miss Metropolitan. Based on the synopsis I thought this character would play an important role in the novel, but instead, she lingers on the sidelines, living in a world long gone. After the initial shock of seeing the girls being led from the house she adds no insight to their story nor is there any sense of its impact on her life. She is joined in other chapters by other journalists, but I was never sure what I was supposed to take away from their presence. Instead, they felt like interlopers taking space away from the novel’s main story.
The first half of Dear Miss Metropolitan is dedicated solely to Fern and Gwin, with the bulk of it about their time in captivity. Ferrell uses a staccato, stream of consciousness style to make broken bones, missing teeth, being locked in a washing machine seem banal. Chapters are brief, often containing nothing more than a “typical schedule” or list of “chores”—both of which are shorthand for abuse. The novel’s second half details their new world, expanding beyond the young women to some of their rescuers, the toddler who was with them, and Fern’s brother, Bud. All circling around the two, trying to solve mysteries they themselves can’t solve. Fern and Gwin are haunted over what happened to Jesenia, the other girl, but even decades later, the truth is buried in their subconscious—the only place it can’t hurt them.
There is no tidy resolution to this novel. I commend Ferrell, a first-time author, for tackling such a difficult topic and transforming it into a story that shivers with immediacy. It’s brave, giving voice to an extreme experience most (thankfully) will never have. Dear Miss Metropolitan is an expansive exploration on the plight of lost Black girls, community, justice, and resilience. A literary lamentation worth the pain it encompasses.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Henry Holt and Company in exchange for an honest review.*