The Longings of Wayward Girls

By Karen Brown

(Washington Square Press, $15, 315 pages)

Who is this author?

Karen Brown, who grew up in West Hartford and now lives in Florida, has won impressive prizes for her earlier work. “Little Sinners and Other Stories”  was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012 and her collection, “Pins and Needles: Stories,” won an AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, and Good Housekeeping.  Brown currently teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.

What is this book about?

It begins with a prank, pulled by two barely teenage girls on a hot summer day in Connecticut, no real harm is meant but things quickly spiral out of control. The friendless little girl who is the butt of the joke – they send her made-up love letters — goes missing from a neighborhood barbecue and is never found. Sadie, one of the teenagers, stays on in the quiet suburban town, marries and has children of her own. Twenty years go by and then Ray, a boy from her past comes back, and Sadie’s crush on him quickly becomes a dangerous affair and memories of the mysterious disappearance spring back to life. Only this time, answers appear about the missing girl as well as about Sadie’s difficult mother that she is reluctant to accept.

Why you’ll like it:

Brown mixes past and present in an intriguing way to tell this story, and while her main character, Sadie, is not the most likeable you will ever meet between the covers of a book, her complex emotions and once calm but suddenly teetering life will draw you in. This is a skillfully written psychological story that explores how the need for excitement can move beyond the desire for a new experience to something far more dangerous.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “At the age of 13, Sadie Watkins has always been on the lookout for excitement. She and her best friend Betty fill this desire by causing mischief such as stealing their mothers’ cigarettes or sending fake love letters to a neighborhood outcast, a girl who then goes missing. Flash-forward to twenty20 years later, Sadie is married and living a comfortable life as a mother to two young children and wife to an attorney, but her need for adventure still remains. When her childhood crush Ray Filley returns to town, Sadie is swept up into an affair that disrupts the lives of those around her. Details about her mother’s death and the missing girl start to emerge and this is something Sadie is not quite ready to face. In her full-length -novel debut, Brown (Little Sinners and Other Stories) writes from the perspective of Sadie’s past and present in alternating chapters. She seamlessly joins the events to create a story full of tension and suspense with an ending that is unexpected.”

In a starred review, Booklist says: “Brown explores the hazy edges of memory, the gnawing desire to escape circumstance, and the pervasiveness of one neighborhood’s secrets. The result is a nerve-racking, psychologically complex novel sure to haunt readers—especially those with dark secrets of their own.”

Says The Tampa Bay Times: “Brown has always been adept at writing about adultery, skillfully evoking its interlocking elements of thrill and threat. In Longings the danger level intensifies as secrets old and new are gradually revealed, and Sadie’s comfortable life hangs in the balance. Both the sex and the suspense benefit from how well Brown grounds them in sharply observed reality. The neighborhood, past and present, comes vividly to life with its shifting alliances among girls and grown women, relationships that range from deeply supportive to devastatingly cruel…it may not seem a likely setting for a ghost story, but this novel is haunted.”

“Brown . . . expands her repertoire in her first novel, a psychological suspense that grabs readers from the start but loosens its grip a bit before the conclusion. Back in the ’70s, a quiet middle-class neighborhood is rocked by the disappearance of two young girls who vanish five years apart. Sadie Watkins bears a close resemblance to the first, 9-year-old Laura Loomis, and is grudgingly forced to play with the second, Francie Bingham. Francie, with her awkward appearance, unhappy home life and a desire to be liked, makes an easy target for Sadie and her best friend, Betty. They resent Francie’s intrusion into their games and conversations but soon turn her presence into a source of cruel amusement. More than 20 years later, Sadie’s still living in the same neighborhood and has settled into her own life with a loving husband and two young children. Her past is long buried–or so she thinks–until musician Ray Filley returns to town. As Ray pursues her with single-minded persistence, Sadie’s former actions and feelings haunt her, and she finds herself turning into someone she remembers all too well. Brown effectively ensnares the reader in a tangle of gloom, intrigue and drama where family homes and a peaceful, hidden neighborhood attraction might be mere facades for dark secrets and tortured lives that lie hidden somewhere within. Switching between past and present, Sadie’s life slowly unravels as she’s finally forced to confront past and present actions and determine who she really is and unresolved issues ultimately achieve some semblance of closure. Although the author combines the elements of good suspense writing to achieve an entertaining and nerve-jangling suspense novel, there are a few weaknesses that might bother the reader. The introduction of the pregnant waitress and her husband does little to enhance the suspense and, in fact, detracts from the story. And the ending is a bit too contrived and just doesn’t fulfill the promise of Brown’s earlier narrative. Even with flaws, Brown’s complex and haunting piece is better than average,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Library Journal says: “Opening with a map of the small Connecticut town setting and an old newspaper article about a missing girl, this debut novel . . . immediately draws the reader into an absorbing story that straddles the line between mystery and coming-of-age tale. One summer, 13-year-old Sadie, who slowly loses her innocence as she uncovers the truth about her glamorous mother, plays a prank with her best friend on a neighborhood girl who later disappears. Two decades later, Sadie is married with children, creating the same life as the mother she disdained. Brown skillfully moves between the teenage Sadie, who uses her newfound knowledge and her scheming mind to turn child’s play into something dangerous, and the adult Sadie trying to put her past behind her. VERDICT This haunting and hard-to-put-down novel will stay with readers long after they have finished. Especially disturbing is that Sadie, in both eras, is an unlikable person whose manipulations and need for instant gratification make her more like the mother she tries to forget.”

When is it available?

Copies of Brown’s book are at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills, Dwight, Park and Mark Twain branches.

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