Be Safe I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

(Simon & Schuster, $26, 304 pages)

Who is this author

Cara Hoffman writes and teaches others to write and appreciate literature. Hoffman has been a visiting writer at St. John’s, Columbia and Oxford Universities and now teaches writing and literature at Bronx Community College. Her first novel was the well-received “So Much Pretty,” and “Be Safe I Love You” is also getting critical raves.

What is this book about?

It’s about a soldier who unexpectedly comes home from a tour of duty in Iraq, bringing a daunting load of war-induced emotional problems. What’s different about this book is that the soldier is a woman. Lauren was once a gifted singer, but enlisted to help provide for her family, especially her very smart brother, Danny.  Something is obvious wrong when she returns, but Lauren’s family, which has been rocked by divorce and her father’s illness, can’t or won’t deal with it, hoping that time at home will help her heal. Then she takes Danny to Canada, where there is an oil field she has grown obsessed with, and begins to teach him survival skills. Bit by bit, the reader learns what happened in Iraq and why she is behaving so oddly, and perhaps dangerously.

Why you’ll like it:

We’ve all read compelling books about men at war and the difficulties they have when they return home. But it’s a rare novel that captures the experience of a woman warrior who is just as devastated as male soldiers, especially when the book  is earning great praise for its beautiful writing.  As our armed forces have changed to offer opportunities for women, this book is a reminder that the horrific downside of the experience affects both genders.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Hoffman’s excellent sophomore effort (after 2012’s So Much Pretty) describes the troubled homecoming of U.S. Army Sergeant Lauren Clay to Watertown, N.Y., from a tour of duty in Iraq. Lauren, left as a young girl by her mother to care for her little brother, Danny, and her depressed, bedridden father, is bitter and skeptical of her parents’ newfound eagerness to play an active role in her life. Once a promising classical singer, she is now permanently on edge, quick to anger, and plagued by nightmares and hallucinations. Upon her return, Lauren is alarmed to find that 13-year-old Danny has become an Internet junkie, and she decides to take him on a road trip to Canada. There, she plans to look for work with former soldier Daryl Green, a kindred spirit with whom she served. Lauren chucks Danny’s phone and subjects him to a crash course in wilderness survival as the two head north. Meanwhile, Lauren’s acquaintances become concerned about her unusual behavior, especially after several calls from an Army psychologist. Hoffman fills her tight narrative with an ominous sense of imminent violence. The sunny ending sounds a rare false note in this haunting page-turner, which otherwise rings true in its depiction of a veteran’s plight.”

“A finely tuned piece of fiction . . . Be Safe I Love You is a painful exploration of the devastation wrought by combat even when the person returns from war without a scratch. The story—written with such lucid detail it’s hard to believe the main character is an invention—suggests the damage starts long before the soldier reports for duty. . . . In crystalline language that conveys both the desolation of the Iraqi desert and the north country of New York State . . . this book is a reminder that art and love are all that can keep us from despair,” says The New York Times Book Review.

The Washington Post says: “In so many ways, we still think of warfare and soldiering as male endeavors. The plight of the female soldier remains largely out of view — in print media, on television news, even in fiction and film. Through Lauren, Cara Hoffman’s thoroughly researched and carefully crafted heroine, Be Safe I Love You illuminates the distaff side of military service and the ways that life in uniform are at once different and, at times, uncannily similar for men and women. Toward the end of this fine novel, Lauren finds a new life for herself based on her old passions, but Hoffman doesn’t give us the sense that she’s fully healed. Rather, she is, in her own way, soldiering on, a woman forever changed. . . . ‘She knew now that the difference between never and always was small,’ Hoffman writes. ‘Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of safety glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create.’”

“Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty . . . [Be Safe I Love You] is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions (the working class being more directly affected by American warfare than anyone else). . . . A terrific story, suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it’s also a call to action, a heartfelt demand for us to pay closer attention to the costly fallout of violence,”  says the Miami Herald.

The Boston Globe says: “For those of us never deployed into active duty, it is difficult to fathom the adrenaline-fueled combination of terror and anger that combat instills. We only see the aftermath, when soldiers return home, forever changed, trying to connect with a world where everyone seems flawed and fragile and uncomprehending. . . . In prose that is both powerful and poetic, Hoffman (So Much Pretty) paints a searing portrait of PTSD and the disconnect of the returning vet amid the well-meaning but clueless. . . . Even more compelling is the novel’s rare, illuminating glimpse into the distinctive experience and psyche of a female vet. Hoffman challenges us to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it must be to reconcile the innate protective instincts of the caregiver with a culture of violence and orders to kill. Yet she does that beautifully and poignantly, without destroying our hope for redemption and healing.”

When is it available?

This novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.