Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com
There was buzz around this novel a long time before publication. I started seeing the #thisbeautiful hashtag on Twitter in I think May, a full five months before the publication date. Promotion seems to be starting earlier and earlier for books these days! As long as we keep it up and don’t forget the books by the time they are published…
I am writing the first part (at least) of this review in June, shortly after having read #thisbeautiful. I thought it best to get my thoughts down when the book is still fresh in my mind.
First let’s talk about that title. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. Aside from the fact that I keep thinking ‘never’ and ‘would’ should be the other way around, to me it sounds more like the title of a poem than a novel. Or at least a prose poem (does anyone write those anymore?). It is a phrase that the author has clearly pored over and crafted to make it just right – otherwise it wouldn’t be so important to include all of it in the title. At first I just thought it was way too long, but after having read the book I see that it is necessary in its own way. While this is not a long novel it is one that is complex and rambling, filled up with stories and images. It is the story of a group of friends over one summer in the 1970s, and the story of so many other young people living with the presence and aftermath of war.
Katie narrates our story for us. She lives on Long Island, at Elephant Beach. ‘The Beach’ is a place but it is also like another character. It influences everyone that comes to live in it, and while it captures some it drives others away. Katie lives there with her adopted mother, and she feels a great sense of security in the familiarity of life at the beach, of seeing the same people in the same places everyday and always having something to do and people to see. She and most of her friends are in their late teens and are just leaving school. They are simultaneously independent and heavily reliant on their parents, and exist in a strange limbo between childhood and adulthood. Katie recounts memories of growing up with the people around her, and their lives as small children do not seem very far away – but already they are dealing and taking drugs, having sex in cars and falling asleep, barefoot and drunk, on the beach. They are bored and adventurous in the way that most teenagers are, but they are also overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. They all know someone who has been to fight, whether or not they returned. They all know that the war is complicated and morally unstable, and they all yearn for love and stability – though I doubt they would really characterise it that way.
Katie and her friends are essentially hippies – they reminded me a lot of the ‘disaffected’ young people that Joan Didion writes about in her essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (included in the collection of the same name). They live in San Francisco in the 1960s, and though they exist in a very different environment there are stark similarities. Drugs and sex abound, as well as a lack of parental authority and the attitude that everything will be alright if you just ‘go with the flow’. They live in a supposedly amazing and almost idyllic place that should give them a wonderful life, but the reality of that life is almost nothing like the ideal – that applies to both Didion’s subjects as well as Katie and her friends. She tells us about several of them in little ‘vignettes’, a chapter dedicated to each incredible story.
As well as disillusionment and apathy, these young people also have to deal with unplanned pregnancies. There are several of these in the book and Katie relates the tales of three of her female friends, one who has the baby and struggles to cope and eventually moves away from the beach with her boyfriend; one who has her baby adopted and then joins a communal Christian household; and one who has a secret abortion, at which Katie is present. I felt these girls’ desperation and sadness, as well as their guilt at doing things ‘wrong’ and not being ‘good’. It is easy to forget that at this point the pill was not available to everyone, and abortions were illicit (though legal in the state of New York). These girls are not guided by their mothers, sisters, or (it seems) sex education at school, and have to muddle through on their own. There is a relaxed attitude to sex (though Katie and some of her younger friends are still yet to experience it), but no one is prepared for the consequences. To me this demonstrated the importance of not leaving young people like these to entirely fend for themselves – they have no support or help from anyone except each other, and they are all clueless.
This Beautiful is not particularly plot-driven. It is more a portrait of a time, and a group of people, and a place. Katie serves as a good narrator as not much seems to happen to her in comparison to her friends, and she is a good observer of the drama around her. Yet she is still just as lost and naive as the rest of them, and often wonders about the mother who gave her away – particularly when faced with her friends’ impending parenthood. Was her mother also some lost young girl, afraid of the future and growing up? Was she also without guidance and support, left to deal with things on her own? While Katie and her friends are a product of their era, perhaps the youth of every generation cannot escape the confusion of growing up.
Published in October 2014 by Tinder Press (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
You can read more about Judy Chicurel here.