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Review of Karen Brown's The Longings of Wayward Girls

In this novel, Karen Brown meditates on the suffering that goes along with love and lust. This is her debut as a novelist, but Publishers Weekly named her Little Sinners and Other Stories as a Best Book of 2012.

Set in an middle class suburb near Hartford, Connecticut, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a psychological novel. The main character, Sadie Watkins, is a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, and she’s
grieving her recent miscarriage. In her undone state of mind, she starts an affair with a neighbour, Ray Filley, a man she’d last seen 24 years ago.

She senses that something unseemly happened between her mother and Ray when he was a teenager, and that hunch leads Sadie on a journey toward the painful truths hidden in her fuzzy memories of summer, 1979, the year she turned thirteen: Sadie calls it “that summer” when everything changed.

Brown’s narrative structure mesmerized me in two ways:
  1. Mirroring the rift in Sadie’s memory, the chapters flip back and forth between 1979 and 2003 (the story’s current time). That structure is a hypnotic device, and it drew me in to Sadie’s world, one in which the past often seems indistinguishable from the present. I got the eerie, dreamlike feeling that the past was living itself over again;
  2. Beyond its psychological effects, the novel excels at description. Heat, thunderstorms, humidity, children's dirty feet, birds, and insects (especially cicadas) -- Brown describes these things in a way that transported me to the essence of a New England summer. And specific objects from the 1970s bring back the period, for example,
    • dixie cups;
    • ubiquitous cigarettes;
    • shag rugs in harvest gold.
These specific details drew me in and kept me in the "story world" of the novel. This is a haunting tale, one that will enchant lovers of psychological suspense.