The Big Girls
Susanna Moore’s most recent novel The Big Girls follows the aftermath of a tragic crime by tracing the interconnected lives of Helen, Dr. Louise Forrest, Angie, and Ike Bradshaw. These four characters take turns telling their own stories, through first-person narration, adding details and secrets to unravel the complexities of the situation that binds them together. The Big Girls looks unabashedly at the inner workings of prisons and the lives of inmates, revealing a harrowing and fresh story of human nature.
Louise is the first character the reader meets, as she opens the novel with a tightly constructed description of the Sloatsburg prison. It is her sixth month as the chief psychiatrist at Sloatsburg, where she treats women inmates for an array of psychological disorders and manages their medications. Louise is also the mother of an eight-year-old son, Ransom, and recently divorced from her husband, Rafael. Though her tone is even-keeled, she carefully hints that she also sees a therapist, has concerns about her sexuality, and self-medicates for her anxiety. She is highly analytical of everything she encounters, particularly her own behaviors and actions. As a result, the reader deems her trustworthy and forthright; she has things to hide, but instead confronts her fears openly.
Helen is introduced next, but without a warning that the point of view is shifting. Louise’s section ends, and Helen takes up with her own self-introduction. She is currently an inmate on death row, and she recalls the night she was taken to prison. Her voice is soft and almost naïve after Louise’s. Although Helen speaks to the reader as though the reader must already know her story, she is not direct or clear about the nature of her situation, revealing only her feelings and moods and even the details of her crime as she begins to trust the reader.
Like the majority of the women in the prison, Helen is medicated for psychological disorders and is a survivor of many years of sexual abuse; she was victimized by Uncle Dad, her stepfather. Even after she was married to her husband, Jimmy, her stepfather continued to abuse her. Helen’s ability to report her own life shifts with her medications and moods. She does not willfully contort the truth, but she is an unreliable narrator.
Ike is one of the security guards at Sloatsburg and a retired New York police officer. He treats the inmates better than most of his fellow officers, taking care that some of the women do not fall to abuse by other prisoners or guards. His attitude of superiority comes through often, particularly in his musings on Louise. As he has worked at Sloatsburg longer than her and comes from a more street-smart background, he assumes that he can predict her reactions. He is aware of Louise’s attraction to him and responds subtly by walking her to the train station at night. As their relationship becomes sexual, he tries to remain casual about his feelings for her. In turn, she attempts to prevent Ike from meeting her son Ransom.
The final narrator of the novel is Angie, a Hollywood actress. Though her particular story is the least important to the plot, she occupies a very important position relative to the other characters in the novel. First, Helen writes to Angie on numerous occasions, at first appearing to be a loyal fan and later presenting a more complex story. Over the months that Helen writes...
(The entire section is 1399 words.)