Be Safe I Love You
By Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
304 pages, $26
The Frangipani Hotel
By Violet Kupersmith
248 pages, $25
By Stephanie Shapiro
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Warning: either or both of these books might haunt you. Cara Hoffman and Violet Kupersmith plant pictures in the mind, images not easy to erase. Perhaps not even possible.
Young Kupersmith, not yet 25 years old, seems to be channeling the literary spirit of Isak Dinesen in these Vietnamese tales as they morphed into completely up-to-date short stories.
Cara Hoffman, who has produced several previous novels, packs a shocking narrative punch.
Her protagonist, Lauren Clay (feet of?), returns from combat duty in Iraq, raises hell in a town probably modeled on Watertown, burning down a tavern before she snatches her younger brother, Danny, for a road trip to northernmost coastal Quebec.
Two moments are so unlike the Lauren that Hoffman has drawn, that reading them creates acute discomfort. A growing unease jolts into something more foreboding when Lauren tosses her brother’s cellphone out of the car window on a remote Ontario highway.
The second moment is even worse. They are camped in an abandoned cabin, and Lauren has made Danny begin a kind of boot camp, with pushups and ever-longer daily runs in the deep snow. She believes she is teaching him to survive on his own, after she is gone. Gone? Hoffman hints that Lauren may be planning to blow up an ocean oil rig off the coast relatively near to the hideout. Lauren and her friends see the Iraq War as being all about the world oil supply.
In the cabin, Danny refuses an order:
“She dropped him quickly with a kick to the back of his knee and then grabbed his hand and turned it down hard, pressing his fingers toward the inside of his wrist and holding his elbow in place. He winced in pain and shock. Then she let go, shoving him away hard as she did.”
Danny continues to refuse to obey, and she repeats the assault four more times. The passage is painful to read, as Lauren betrays the trust of her brother. She has cared for him ever since their mother left the family to move to Buffalo. Their psychologist father (a former hippy complete with pony tail) takes to his bed for several depressive years, leaving all the responsibilities to Lauren.
After high school, she abandons hope of a classical singing career to join the Army for the $20,000 signing bonus. With the money, she can save Danny from having to go into the military to escape their stifling life in town. He can go to college with the money. But in Iraq, something has gone terribly wrong with Lauren.
The wrist-twisting makes visible the evil that has infected her.
After enduring the fifth assault, Danny says to her, “Show me how to do that.” But he remains relatively immune to his sister’s delusional intentions and manages to call for help from a diner in a nearby town.
The wrist-twisting episode recalls a similar moment in “The Butch Boy,” a 1992 novel in which the young boy Francie’s heart is touched by the helpless innocence of a piglet but kills it anyway to keep his job in a slaughterhouse. It all happens in a moment, for both authors. Those few sentences from “The Butcher Boy” have retained their horror through two decades.
Cara Hoffman’s unflinching picture of Lauren’s perverse drive to train Danny “for his own good” is not likely to fade soon.
Those pivotal moments are set in a rich fabric of characters and references to books and music that have shaped Hoffman’s characters, especially the minimalist and highly spiritual music of composer Arvo Part. The contrast makes Lauren’s descent into war-generated delusions all the more disappointing.
Hoffman knows what a frosted-over windshield looks like as the defroster begins to take effect, and she knows how to write so that we see it too. Lauren’s mom invites her to Buffalo, to see the philharmonic or go to the Allen Street Dress Shop a real store. The plot is so grounded in reality that Lauren’s delusions are all the more bizarre.
About halfway through “The Frangipani Hotel,” I almost began to suspect that Violet Kupersmith was channeling the spirit of Isak Dinesen, whose autobiography became the movie “Out of Africa.” Kupersmith has the same ability as Dinesen’s to turn ordinary events into magical dreamworlds, sometimes even before the reader notices the shift.
Kupersmith, born in 1989 to a Vietnamese boat-refugee mother and American father, already has spent a year in Vietnam on a teaching scholarship. These short stories originated in tales her Vietnamese grandmother told Kupersmith throughout her childhood. They take place now, in Vietnam and in Houston, with cellphones, low-level Texas hoodlums and drowned water sprites coexisting with ghosts returning from times long past. The naked 70-year-old man hiding behind a Houston convenience store worries about a frightening metamorphosis he undergoes with increasing frequency.
Cara Hoffman shows the world as it appears to a deluded, traumatized individual and to her fellow victims. Violet Kupersmith presents tales distilled over many years and many retellings into a kind of group perception, a cultural development.
Either way, the warning holds. Prepare to be haunted.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.