Girls in Trouble
by Caroline Leavitt
Published by St. Martin's Press
368 pages, 2004
Are You My Mother?
Reviewed by David Abrams
Few things are as emotionally devastating as families torn asunder -- whether by death, divorce or bitter rancor which can fester like a virus between relatives for years. Few family issues are as complicated and, occasionally, rancorous as adoption. Yes, things often proceed with a satisfying, business-like efficiency between all parties concerned -- birth mother, adoption agency, adoptive parents -- but rarely does the whole process come off without some pretty heavy emotional baggage. Packed inside that luggage, you'll find regret, confusion, distrust and despair.
In her new novel Girls in Trouble, Caroline Leavitt grabs the gnarled complexities of adoption with both hands and wrenches out a gut-gripping tale of a parental love triangle gone bad.
Leavitt, author of Coming Back to Me and several other novels, describes in vivid detail what happens when an unwed teenage mother gives up her baby to a loving couple then tries to get it back. There are no easy answers and though the book ends on a relatively happy note, you can't help wondering about the emotional rollercoaster ride the characters have taken over the previous 360 pages and the toll their actions have taken.
Girls in Trouble opens with a gripping birth scene as sixteen-year-old Sara is rushed to the hospital by her parents, Abby and Jack, who are less than thrilled about the way things have turned out for their honors-student daughter. In the back seat, Abby rubs Sara's back and promises, "It'll be over soon. Think of your future. Think of school."
As labor pains threaten to split her in half, those are the last things on Sara's mind. She's thinking about her boyfriend, dark-haired Danny, who unexpectedly disappeared after Sara told him she was pregnant with their child. She's thinking about George and Eva, the childless couple who are also en route to the hospital to see the birth of the baby they've been promised. She's thinking of a movie she once saw called It's Alive which had "babies born with teeth, vicious killers who devoured their parents."
Baby Anne is nothing like a movie monster, of course; but Sara only has a few moments to enjoy her before the adoptive parents take charge:
Dr. Chasen held the baby up, white and cheesy, dotted with blood. He whisked it away and brought it back, placing it in her arms. "Just for a minute," he said. It didn't look or feel or seem like any of the babies she had ever carried. She was about to stroke the baby's face, to touch its nose, and then Eva bent over her and took the baby from her, bursting into happy tears. "My little one," she breathed.
Compounding Sara's pain is the fact that for the last several months George and Eva had welcomed her into their home, treating her like a member of the family. Sara got used to eating meals with them, going on trips to the museum or miniature golfing. It helped ease the pain of boyfriend Danny dumping her once she found out she was pregnant.
Now, with George and Eva cooing over "their" new child and Sara's own parents as cold and emotionally distant as ever, Sara's world begins to crumble. She acts recklessly for an instant and spends the rest of the book paying for her mistake. She gets little support from her parents or, eventually, George and Eva (in fact, there haven't been sets of parents this cruel since the Montagues and the Capulets). Even into her adulthood, Sara must deal with the impetuous decisions of her youth.
The novel progresses quickly through the story of these two families (three, if you count Danny's) and while Leavitt sometimes succumbs to trite dialogue, the pace of the plot keeps you turning pages long after you've promised yourself you'll only read one more chapter for the night. It's a sad, complex story told by a writer with a big heart. Caroline Leavitt truly cares about her characters and, by the last page, she'll have you thoroughly tangled in their thorny situation. | March 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.