Be Safe I Love You
On December 18, 2011, the last American troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Since then, there’s been a handful of fiction --- most notably, Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, Kevin Powers’s THE YELLOW BIRDS and Phil Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT --- held up as being the most accurate at capturing, on the battlefield and off, some of the more unspeakable aspects of the Iraq war. And in keeping with the tradition of “war literature,” the voices heard in those books have been resoundingly male. Cara Hoffman, author of SO MUCH PRETTY, has set out to redress that imbalance in her latest novel, BE SAFE I LOVE YOU.
Set in Watertown in upstate New York, the book opens with the unannounced return of Lauren Clay, a soldier back from nine months duty in Amarah, Iraq. Lauren is a “good girl,” smart and talented, traits that set her apart from the people she has grown up with. She also possesses a driving need to look out for others, particularly her younger brother Danny, whose welfare is jeopardized by their father, Jack, an unstable man torn apart by a failed marriage and a history of alcoholism and violent moods. Jack’s unreliability had been the primary motivation behind Lauren’s decision to enlist in the first place. She bypassed college --- and a potential career in singing --- because she needed to know that no matter what happened, Danny would have a roof over his head. Fort Drum, the local army base in Watertown, provided her with a solution, albeit at a price.
"BE SAFE I LOVE YOU is an important step into new territory that hopefully will blaze a trail for other writers to follow."
Lauren works to reintegrate into her life state-side, gingerly reconnecting with the folks she’d left behind, such as Shane, her sort-of boyfriend, and Holly, her friend from high school, a single mom who works at the local bar, The Bag of Nails. But Danny remains Lauren’s primary concern. Danny is obsessed with all things arctic, finding an escape from life at home with Jack in images of frozen landscapes he finds on the Internet. Lauren, thinking he’s too reliant on images and too disconnected from reality, hatches a plan to whisk him away from Watertown and up into Canada to bring him face to face with the harsh truth he thinks he understands. She also hopes to meet up with Daryl, a fellow soldier and friend under her command in Iraq, who has settled in Canada with his wife.
Meanwhile Dr. Klein, an army psychologist, is anxious to make contact with Lauren after discovering an overlooked detail in her final medical report that suggests she might not be ready for civilian life just yet --- that she might, in fact, be a bit unstable.
Though it’s never referred to by name, Lauren is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in the short time she spends in Watertown --- the bulk of the book’s action spans about one week --- her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, while her patience for other people’s inability to follow her orders or live a more purpose-driven life pushes her to the brink. “She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals,” Hoffman writes of Lauren. “Soft, inarticulate, wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them --- not one of them --- did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were.”
Beyond a terse description of the traumatic episode in Iraq that pushed Lauren over the edge, there’s surprisingly little in BE SAFE I LOVE YOU about the war itself or the challenges women face within the military system. And when The Bag of Nails goes up in flames and suspicion is cast on Lauren --- by then AWOL in the woods with Danny --- the book sharply detours into thriller territory and never finds its way again. It’s a shame, because Hoffman is thoroughly convincing in her depictions of Lauren’s turbulent inner life as she struggles to reclaim her identity as both an individual and an artist. The change in tone nearly flattens everything that’s come before it.
However, shortcomings aside, BE SAFE I LOVE YOU is an important step into new territory that hopefully will blaze a trail for other writers to follow. Surely, Lauren Clay’s story is not the only female soldier’s story to be told.
Reviewed by Damian Van Denburgh on April 10, 2014
Be Safe I Love You
- Publication Date: April 1, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- ISBN-10: 1451641311
- ISBN-13: 9781451641318