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The Big Girls: A Novelby Susanna Moore
Synopses & Reviews
At the heart of this electrifying novel is a crime of unfathomable horror and its effect on several profoundly different lives, each altered by a surprising connection to the others.
We hear four brilliantly realized voices: Helen, an inmate at Sloatsburg women's prison serving a life sentence for the murder of her children; trapped within the maze of her own tortured mind, she is the subject of damning national attention. Dr. Louise Forrest, the recently divorced mother of an eight-year-old boy — the new chief of psychiatry at Sloatsburg. Angie, an ambitious Hollywood starlet, intent on nothing but fame. And Ike Bradshaw, a sardonic corrections officer, formerly a New York City narcotics detective.
As the alternating narratives unfold, we begin to wonder why Dr. Forrest has chosen Sloatsburg over the Park Avenue practice for which she was trained. And the origin of Helen's psychosis is revealed — both its shocking depths and its disturbingly convincing rationale — as well as why she is desperate to make herself known to the young actress Angie.
The Big Girls is a powerful and audacious novel about the anarchy of families, the sometimes destructive power of the maternal instinct, the vitality and evil of communities, and the cult of celebrity — written in spare, evocative prose and with a bold understanding of the darkest, most hidden aspects of human nature.
"Women are the wild cards in the ongoing card game of the human race. We bother men. We drive them nuts. We giggle at the wrong time. We don't pay attention. We pay too much attention. We hold a grudge. Or we forgive too easily. We're supposed to be the ones who make men behave badly. Thus, if a man bashes a woman, it's more than likely a crime of passion. But if a woman kills someone, she must be... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) truly monstrous. And if a woman kills her own children, lock that female up and throw away the key. But where do those women go — after they get locked up and someone throws away the key? Susanna Moore creates one horrifying version of that world for us in 'The Big Girls,' a hypnotizing, oddly somnolent, intensely freaky novel. Sloatsburg Correctional Institution — seven horrid stone buildings 'on the west bank of the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan by train' — is a hell for women, a ghastly netherworld of punishment. (Moore is a genius at creating alternate universes. Her previous novel, 'One Last Look,' gave us Calcutta in the year 1836, a place that seduced and debauched naive colonialists who thought they were coming to rule but either died or lost their dignity — their whole rational idea of themselves destroyed in drugs, spices, unfathomable disorder, lawless sex.) At first glance, Sloatsburg doesn't seem much like Calcutta, but the places have some things in common: Sex is sinful, painful, disgraceful, ubiquitous. Hallucinations are plentiful (from fever in India, from childhood trauma in the prison). Violence is everywhere. But both places are also overwhelmingly seductive, disgustingly mesmerizing. Once you experience them, every breath of fresh air anywhere else seems bogus. Moore tells her prison story from four points of view. There's Louise Forrest, an attractive psychiatrist who for unexplained reasons has decided to work in this awful place, despite the fact that she's a single mother who must make the commute back to the city each night to be with Ransom, her creepy 8-year-old boy. There's Helen, an inmate who was abused in childhood by her stepfather, whom she calls 'Uncle Dad.' She's done away with her own children to keep them from the rigors of this dreadful world. 'Did I mother my kids?' she asks Forrest, 'Did I murder them?' Helen's grasp on reality is hazy at best. Her imaginary friend Ellen has committed her crimes, and if that weren't enough, she's visited often by Avenging Messengers who crash through walls. Her one overwhelming wish is to kill herself but, of course, everything in this environment is set up to keep her from doing that. Two other characters, marginally sensible ones, inhabit these pages. One is Angie, an up-and-coming starlet out on the West Coast who needs to parlay her career into genuine star status. She lives, by coincidence, with Forrest's ex-husband. Angie is self-centered, hedonistic, practical, a great user of drugs just to get through the day. The last is Ike Bradshaw, a corrections officer who's a smart enough man, but he's taken for an emotional ride by a couple of the characters mentioned above. Helen, poor crazy little woman, sees a picture of Angie in a movie magazine and writes to her as a sister, which just adds another level of psychosis to everything else she has to deal with. Ike takes a liking to Forrest, but he forgets to take into account the ruthlessness of Ransom, her little boy. The trouble is, humans are sexual beings, and when cornered, they'll do anything to protect their emotional and sexual love objects. That truth applies here to everyone — from the odious Uncle Dad to smarmy little Ransom, to all the throngs of suffering, desperate women in the lockup. Helen — in between spells of craziness — sagely observes, 'Many of the ladies here wouldn't be gay if they were at home. ... Acting gay has saved their lives. Some of them were never loved before, by either man, woman, or child. It's a way to feel safe, despite all the fights. It's also a good way to make the time fly. I can see that.' To create a world in which an insane child-murderer sounds more sentient than anyone else, to make us believe utterly in that world and still want to keep on reading, is a remarkable feat. This novel is as horrible as it is great, and vice versa." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comCarolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] compelling jailhouse drama....Moore never shies away from the dark crimes at the center of the narrative, but she brings electrifying prose and a richly compassionate viewpoint to her meditation on both the dark and the generous impulses at work in all of us." Booklist (Starred Review)
"The novel is keenly observed....But Ms. Moore's willful focus on the brutality that goes on [in prison] and the brutality that has shaped so many of these women's lives begins to feel both sensationalistic and numbing as the book progresses." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Moore gradually probes Helen's psychosis to its horrifying origins, while also delivering a nuanced and devastating account of the fights, rapes, and alliances built from necessity that constitute prison life." The New Yorker
"Compelling, although nothing quite jells into clarity." Kirkus Reviews
"The story glides along in short, kaleidoscopic scenes, building momentum through the accretion of exquisite and surprising detail....[There is] a devastating climax." Boston Globe
"[R]ead[s] more like a collection of pilfered diary entries than a work of conventional fiction. The Big Girls carries a voyeuristic charge, the confessions so intimate you feel embarrassed for looking, but the whip-smart narration makes it impossible to turn away." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Moore has a beautiful way of not gripping her characters too tightly, despite the fact that her novels are carefully constructed. In The Big Girls, this quality manifests itself in the way she weaves the voices without clunky authorial intervention." Los Angeles Times
"[A] maddeningly inconsistent, seriously flawed work....Such a self-consciously tough-minded novel, crammed with addiction, beatings, murder, incest, rape and the memories of so many tragic accidents, cannot depend upon such contrivances. It simply falls apart." San Diego Union-Tribune
"Mesmerizing....Moore spins an impressive, well-realized collection of voices and experiences, allowing each to be considered and almost clinically analyzed." San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] superb novel....The author rises above sensation by being nervy and ruthless, never picking the easy way when she could be planting thorns, puzzles and harsh wisdom in the reader's path." The New York Observer
From the acclaimed author of In the Cut, an electrifying new novel that has at its heart a crime of unfathomable horror and its effects on three profoundly different women whose lives are inextricably joined.
About the Author
Susanna Moore is the author of the novels One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and a book of nonfiction, I Myself Have Seen It. She lives in New York City.
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