GIRL IN PIECES is the debut novel of Kathleen Glasgow, University of Minnesota MFA graduate whose own 12-year residence in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul brings a familiarity of place to Twin Cities readers. For some, the familiarity may end there; for others, it may only begin. The book’s main character, 17-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Davis, is a cutter: a practitioner of self-harm, the deliberate act (according to Glasgow in an end note to the book) “of cutting, burning, poking or otherwise marring your skin as a way to cope with emotional turmoil.”
One (of many) successes of this beautifully written story is how Glasgow makes Charlie’s self-injury comprehensible and, arguably, inevitable. By the time she’s 17, Charlie has been abandoned by both parents, many friends and even the institution (a self-injury rehab clinic) to which she has been sent. Her compulsions and addictions are never romanticized but neither are they unforeseeable, given Charlie’s history of homelessness, abuse and neglect. When Glasgow describes Charlie’s “tender box”–the box of supplies she keeps to cut and, paradoxically, to salve and bandage her wounds afterwards–the notion that any human being would be so wanting for comfort, however expensively gotten, is a real and heartbreaking epiphany. In fact, in Glasgow’s sensitive telling of a girl in many, many pieces, the reader may well ask, Why have we allowed this? much sooner than Why is she doing this?
The book is full of other well-drawn, if not always likable, characters. They include an older man (near 30) with whom Charlie enters an ill-advised, co-dependent relationship. Can co-dependence actually occur in a relationship with a minor, or is it simply abuse because of Charlie’s age? To what degree can Charlie fully participate–even love–in such a relationship? How and when do healing and forgiveness occur in each party, after so much damage is done? These questions present themselves as perfect opportunities for discussion, either within or between generations of readers.
A few older women characters are particularly engaging. An art teacher named Ariel has the perhaps unattractive job of saying and doing some things to Charlie we, ourselves, might like to say and do:
[Ariel] moves quickly, reaching around me to grab my wrists. She flips my arms so the raised lines are visible. Instinctively, I stiffen and try to pull my hands back, but she tightens her grip. Her fingertips are tough with callouses.
She makes a growling sound. “You girls today. You make me so fucking sad. The world hurts enough. Why fucking chase it down?
And yet we learn that, like everyone, Ariel has demons of her own that propel her to a better understanding of Charlie (who, after cursing right back at Ariel in the above scene, gains Ariel’s respect for being “a girl with teeth.”) Another very sympathetically drawn adult female character is a young woman named Linus. She works with Charlie at a coffee shop and in one scene shows the younger girl such honest kindness it literally brought this reader to tears.
Written in short, first-person/present tense segments, the book moves along at a rapid pace and with more than sufficient suspense to keep the reader entirely engaged throughout. There is tragedy and loss aplenty but there is also hope. “How are you going to live this hard life, Charlotte?” is what Ariel ultimately asks, and Glasgow answers it with so many different examples of self-care—art, love, kindness—that I’d recommend this book to an audience far more comprehensive than its YA marketing suggests.
You can pre-order GIRL IN PIECES at kathleenglasgowbooks.com. It will be published by Delacorte Press (for which it is a lead title, already sold in nine countries) on August 30, so you have plenty of time to get it on your book club’s schedule for fall of 2016. I highly recommend it, not only for its finely written story but also as a jumping off point for discussion between and among mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sons.