Click here to read reviewer Deborah Straw's take on The Big Girls.
Told from the perspective of four characters, The Big Girls centers on Dr. Louise Forrest, a thirty-something psychiatrist who, as the novel opens, has been working for a short time at Sloatsburg Correctional Institution, a maximum-security women's prison situated on the west bank of the Hudson River.
Louise has an eight-year-old son named Ransom and has recently divorced her husband, Rafael. Rather than follow Raphael to Los Angeles where he has been working in the film industry, Louise decides to follow her passion and treat all of the junkies, whores and murderers incarcerated on behalf of the federal government.
When Helen - who has been in Sloatsburg for about six months, locked up for the rest of her life for killing her two children - steps into Louise's office, she shows evidence of a particular helplessness, which at first repels Louise then begins to intrigue her.
Helen spends her days constantly looking over her shoulder, not really accepting the fact that she's most likely been imprisoned forever. Helen sees Louise once a week in a private session where gradually her painful past life is unveiled: a life haunted by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and by a husband who treated her like a third wheel.
At first, Louise attempts to get to the heart of Helen's demons and the voices of "dark horseman," the evil spirits that continue to inhabit the girl's every waking moment. In Helen's world, "the unconscious never sleeps." Yet Helen's constant outpourings begin to distress Louise, and she finds herself becoming troubled by her own neuroses and insecurities.
Lately Louise has been feeling strained, and indeed she's a nervous wreck, and it's a miracle she's lasted this long among the "foul odors, the slow black river, the bells, the yellow light, all swirling around me, making her dizzy."
A break from all this intensity, however, comes when she meets Captain Ike Bradshaw, a former New York City police officer and undercover narcotics detective. The attraction to Ike is instant. Bradshaw flirts with Louise and talks to her about the inmates but can do little to assuage her lack of interest in all things intimate.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the fourth character, Angie is trying desperately to break into the movie industry, spending much of her time hanging out with her best friend Deidra, who likes to pop Dexedrine and use her platinum AmEx card to go shopping.
The Big Girls exhibits all of the author's trademark gritty sensibilities, and for the most part, the novel serves up a strangely intimidating brew of incongruent voices all struggling to cope with their phobias and hang-ups, whether in prison or out of it. The main problem with this novel is that without the use of chapter headings, it's often hard to figure out who is talking at any one particularly time, with the voices frequently all morphing into one.
Still, in stark and unforgiving prose familiar to those who have read In the Cut, Susanna Moore brings to the forefront the grim realities of prison, where the wild and guilty are often forced to rail against the unforgiving surrounds, where innocence has no place, where violence is unfortunately a way of life.
Despite the novel's structural faults, Moore delivers up a powerful and gutsy tale of those whose lives are constantly on the edge. They are the women who, when incarcerated, are often left to fend for themselves in an environment that exhibits very little compassion or humanity.
In the end, the novel provides an unsettling yet seductive vision of poverty, loneliness, even sex, along with the cruelty and the fury of a system that throws women aside, tossing them into a scrap heap with little thought to their long-term well-being.