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The Big Girls


The Big Girls

women's prison is a sad and horrific place on a good day. On a bad
day, it's hell on earth and a receptacle of all the dark sides of
the instincts and emotions that women as a species share: a
maternal instinct, but one that is more controlling than loving; a
need for intimacy that isn't necessarily returned by a paramour,
thus leading to deadly drama; a desire to connect with other women
that then turns envious and jealousy takes the reigns. Sloatsburg
women's prison, the main setting of Susanna Moore's THE BIG GIRLS,
is such a place --- seething with opportunity for some welcome (and
not-so-welcome) surprises for all.

Four voices take us inside this particular world: Helen, who is
serving a life sentence for murdering her children, suffering
horrific hallucinations and clutching to moments of lucidity; Chief
of Mental Health Dr. Louise Forrest, the divorced mother of a
beloved eight-year-old boy named Ransom, who is both repulsed and
excited by the prospect of helping her patients; Angie, a would-be
movie starlet who only has eyes for herself but is the object of
another inmate's undying affection; and Ike Bradshaw, former New
York City narcotics detective turned corrections officer who has
seen more than his share of life under the proverbial rock.

The story moves from one place to another --- one set of characters
to another --- very smoothly, following similar trains of thought
at times and making less distinctive segues at others. Moore is an
adept literary juggler, keeping all balls in the air at all times,
even when some of the connections between the characters are
related and seem, well, a little too obvious. For example, two of
these women are going to be brought together through the divorced
husband --- his past and his present. And Louise and Ike's
burgeoning relationship creates added tension in the prison that at
times makes that place almost inexorably unbearable. But Moore is
all about creating and maintaining an intense weave of tension and
drama, which makes THE BIG GIRLS a compelling read.

Moore, having been a teacher of writing at such a prison, brings to
the struggle of these people a certain gravity that raises THE BIG
GIRLS above the usual crime novel. Even Angie, the self-involved
starlet of the book, holds her own amidst the revelations that come
from Moore's relentless attention to emotional detail. Each
character has a surprising and intense journey to go on, and Moore
doesn't once let the rope slip --- all of them are caught in the
swirling vortex of lousy health care, a corrupt prison environment
and a world-at-large that seems to have all its priorities out of
whack. As these characters struggle, so do we, and in them we find
a world of resonating fiction that Moore's immersion in factual
details keeps at a constant boiling point.

Like Michael Cunningham's THE HOURS, the multiple character voices
combine to give us a haunting and decisive view of our culture's
emotional temperature.


Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 22, 2010

The Big Girls
by Susanna Moore

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400076102
  • ISBN-13: 9781400076109