BookBrowse Reviews Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith

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Marilou Is Everywhere

A Novel

by Sarah Elaine Smith

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith X
Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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When another teenage girl disappears, Cindy sees the opportunity to slip into an affluent life far different from the one she's always known—but unintended consequences soon arise.

"The point is that at that moment in my life," writes the narrator of Sarah Elaine Smith's debut novel in its opening pages, "I would kill or die, die or kill, to be anyone else." Eerily enough, become someone else is exactly what Cindy, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of Marilou Is Everywhere, does, under circumstances that quickly develop far higher stakes than she could ever have foreseen.

Cindy lives with her two older brothers, Virgil and Clinton, in a run-down house in Greene County, Pennsylvania. The children's mom is there sometimes, too, but she's also been known to suddenly take off for parts unknown. She had Virgil when she was a teenager herself and never really embraced motherhood. Her frequent absences leave Cindy and her brothers eating mayonnaise sandwiches on frozen bread; without parental guidance, the kids are alone in their quest to keep their house—and their little family—from falling apart completely.

Cindy has always been fascinated by Jude Vanderjohn, an older girl from the neighborhood who dates her brother Virgil. Cindy and Jude have an excellent rapport: "As a private joke, they called each other Marilou and Cletus, and would discourse in the halls like high-toned rustic gentry." As close as they are, however, Jude's affluent life is very unlike Cindy's own—and consequently desirable. Confident and beautiful, Jude lives in a home furnished with books and art, and her parents are supportive and affectionate. Her mother Bernadette is eccentric and her father is Black, making the teenager hyper-visible in her predominantly white, conservative corner of western Pennsylvania.

Tragically, one day Jude disappears from a nearby convenience store, leaving Cindy both fearful and intrigued. Distraught, she helps Virgil clean up trash from Bernadette's cluttered house, where she realizes that her lost friend's cultured, bereaved mother is not quite right in the head. Bernadette's oddness goes beyond the local rumors that she's a witch and her well-known tendency to binge-order infomercial products. For reasons not immediately apparent to the protagonist or readers, Bernadette seems genuinely convinced that Cindy is her missing daughter.

Far from being off put by Bernadette's outlandish claim, Cindy, fed up with her own mother, seizes the opportunity "to be anyone else." She takes advantage of Bernadette's delusions to insert herself into Jude's old life; she immerses herself in a world of literature, art, and fine food and relishes her surrogate mother's unconditional love. As time goes on, however, Cindy learns the origins and extent of Bernadette's illness, and she comes to understand the repercussions of Jude's disappearance on her own family. She ultimately is forced to grapple with emotional truths far beyond her years, slowly realizing that resentment and heartbreak lurk, perhaps, in all families, not just the visibly damaged ones like her own.

Cindy might be only a teenager, but her first-person narration is sophisticated and her language both perceptive and lyrical. Smith is a published poet, so perhaps it's not surprising that her narrator utters lines like "So I was jealous of her. That was the problem. Take me instead, I begged the air. Maybe the shimmer that took her was still hungry." This elegance of prose might come off as unrealistic, except for the fact that Smith also imbues her narrator with truly authentic teenage naïveté, not to mention adolescent resentment: "Why, why, why is what everyone would cry at my funeral, all except my mother, because she'd know. She'd know it was because she abandoned us."

Confident prose and intricate narrative structure mark Mary Lou is Everywhere as one of the most interesting first novels of this year, and its author as one of the most exciting young novelists for readers to follow. Cindy's journey from hungry, envious child to jaded, heartbroken adolescent is one that's not always comfortable to read, but feels both necessary and true.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2019, and has been updated for the August 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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