It’s good to know that a female protagonist doesn’t have to be “nice” in order to be compelling. In Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, returning Iraqi war vet Lauren Clay is anything but nice. Indeed, the reader might be tempted, at first, to call her hateful. But as you read on, it dawns on you that the Lauren who enlisted as a soldier because of the fat signing bonus that would keep the wolves away from the door of her impoverished family isn’t the Lauren who has returned. The word that kept going through this reviewer’s head was “revenant.”
It’s not that Lauren is actually a newly minted member of the walking dead—the book is a horror story, but it’s not that kind of horror story—but her experiences in Iraq have hollowed her out to the point where she is truly something other than human. Fans of “Firefly” and Serenity might recall River Tam, a delicate-looking girl who’s had her amygdala scraped, or something similarly horrible, so that when she hears certain trigger words she becomes a killing machine.
Fortunately and unfortunately, Lauren has enough self-awareness to know that she’s crazy. It’s good that she wants to spare her loved ones, including her depressive and useless father and the beloved younger brother she raised after their mother abandoned them. But the knowledge that she’s been destroyed inside makes her life a torment, and she can’t keep that torment from spilling over onto others.
And it’s those others who finally make you care about what happens to Lauren in the end. Yes, her father is pitiable, but he’s also good. Her brother, too, is lovable and goofy in a way that only teenage boys can be lovable and goofy. Her boyfriend and her best friend believe in her even as they’re subjected to the worst of her behavior. Her voice teacher still believes she’s destined for greatness. Even the boyfriend’s dumb, drunken louts of uncles care about her, as does Lauren’s own surrogate uncle. How can you not think, “If these people care about Lauren so much, why shouldn’t I?” This is called telling a story slant, and it’s a way to pull the reader into some difficult material. In Be Safe I Love You, Hoffman pulls us in brilliantly.