Both beautifully written and psychologically suspenseful, Be Safe I Love You explores the impact and damage of war beyond the battlefield — especially its effects on an American woman soldier.
The protagonist is nineteen year-old Lauren Clay, who returns to her rural New York hometown on Christmas day, from a year's tour of duty in Iraq. "No one was waiting at the airport...because she had told no one she was coming home." She is alone. But only because she won't ask anyone else for help. She only trusts herself.
When Lauren was much younger, her mother abandoned the family, sending her unemployed father into debilitating depression. Lauren assumed responsibility for raising her younger brother, Danny. Fiercely protective, she saw the army as the best way to ensure that she could provide a financially stable life for her beloved sibling. So despite having been an excellent student with exceptional musical talent, she gave up her dreams of college and enlisted straight out of high school.
Lauren is tough, independent, and resourceful desirable traits for a soldier. Understandably, coming home brings on a rush of memories. She suddenly sees her hometown as well as her family and friends from a new perspective. Hoffman's fluid prose keeps us inside Lauren's mind for the majority of the story. We see what she sees. Feel what she feels. Believe what she believes.
But Hoffman also skillfully slips back and forth in time, parceling out information and insights into each of Lauren's experiences as she tries to re-assimilate into life out of the army. Through memories and occasional flashbacks we see how Lauren struggles to reconcile her past with the way things have changed since she's been gone. For instance, her father has finally gotten out of bed. He's working and taking care of Danny; things he couldn't do for her. And yet, she can't quite trust him to stay that way. Her boyfriend Shane seems soft and weak now. She can tell he desires her "tanned, taut war body." When he sees her tattoos, she sees "his look of distress and then hunger." She loves Shane, but is frustrated by his gentleness. Then again, she's frustrated with everyone. She feels as though she's "come home to a world of fragile baby animals." Even her beloved brother is not whom she wants him to be. She fought to protect him, but now she's worried because he doesn't know how to take care of himself. Lauren knows she is going to have to teach him survival skills.
Except she might not have it all exactly right. As the story progresses and Lauren becomes increasingly agitated and anxious, we are allowed into the minds of other characters. We see little bits of her through the eyes of Danny, Shane, her best friend Holly, and even the army psychologist who is desperate to get in contact with Lauren. Through these shifts of perspective we see that as much as everyone seems to have changed in her eyes, it is really Lauren who has changed most of all.
For the most part, these alternate point of views enrich the story and allow for a deeper and clearer understanding. However, occasionally I felt a bit manipulated by the shifts and fade-outs. Information is withheld at times and details, when added, are unnecessarily confusingit feels as though we are kept purposefully in the dark simply to add intrigue and tension. The plot is compelling though with a heightened and escalating pace sure to keep readers riveted.
For me, the character study of Lauren is the most impressive part. She is an authentically real and flawed individual, one whom I admire and wanted desperately to be okay. It's tragic that she feels so completely alone. The reader understands there are people who love her, who want to help her out; but Lauren can't let her guard down enough to let them close. Beyond her family and closest friends, her former music teacher Troy bears his own war scars as does her father's best friend P.J. But instead of turning to them for support, she chooses to isolate herself. By the time she leaves town with Danny in order to visit their mother upstate, we know Lauren is on unstable ground. But we don't know exactly what information we're missing. The palpable tension and worrisome situation creates a page-turning build-up.
Although the policy of including women in combat situations is still controversial, the fact that Lauren is female is incidental. She's far tougher than any of the men we meet in this novel. There is no reason to blame her gender for her distress. The scars she bears are not because she is weak, and certainly not because is a woman. Be Safe I Love You is a poignant study of the far-reaching consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder. It reminds us that it is not only veterans who are impacted by the horrors of war. It has the potential to damage anyone and everyone.
This review was originally published in June 2014, and has been updated for the April 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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