Under Cover: What We’re Reading in November
The disappearance of a teenage girl in Greene County is the inciting event of “Marilou Is Everywhere.”
The official website for Greene County, where Sarah Elaine Smith’s debut novel Marilou Is Everywhere takes place, describes the area as a place where “you can slow down a bit and relax”. But in this story of a teenage girl who disappears mysteriously, relaxing is not something the reader is apt to do.
Jude Vanderjohn’s disappearance is the inciting event of “Marilou Is Everywhere,” but Smith is interested in 14-year-old neighbor Cindy Stoat’s response.
“The summer Jude disappeared, my brothers and I had turned basically feral since our mother had gone off for a number of months and we were living free, according to our own ideas and customs”, Cindy admits.
When we meet Cindy, she is pretty much a blank slate. She doesn’t speak much, and she tends to fade into the background of her own life. She describes her life as formless: “the things that happened to me were air and water and just as see-thru,” but she has “a mad curiosity about people, even though they frightened me.”
Throughout the course of the novel, Cindy will form herself into a new person by discovering who exactly she is and what her own interests are. Two mysteries, then, course through the writing: What happened to Jude and who is Cindy Stoat?
Cindy begins her personal journey when Jude’s addled mother, Bernadette, mistakes her for her own daughter. “To be clear: This was nothing but delusion. I look nothing like Jude,” Cindy says. “I was no brilliant actress, with no real disguise. Bernadette was in much worse shape than anyone knew.”
Eventually, Cindy will adopt the roles of daughter and caretaker for this artistic and distraught woman, abandoning her own family to live in the cluttered mess of the Vanderjohn house.
Smith’s prose is both laconic and startling. She describes a freshly mown lawn as “a bruised green”. A woman moves “like there was juice in her bones and nothing to hurry about”. And a boy has “eyes with all the shine shook out of them.” The residents of the county have been tragically “bent into catastrophe postures by poverty, black lung, heroin, WIC vouchers, fluoride, Miller Time, a caustic species of aloneness, perfectly well-intentioned social workers, postindustrial blight, single-A football, pepperoni rolls, and things like that.”
“Marilou Is Everywhere” is not always pleasant reading, but pleasant reading is not Smith’s intention. The author is challenging the reader, just like Cindy, to come to a new understanding of herself and to outgrow complacency. As Smith writes, “Oh yes. To shed this life. It is a difficult task. Most aren’t up to it. Most don’t have the grit.” Becoming a whole person requires painful engagement with other people, otherwise we are simply spectators of our own lives, ghosts intangible and lost, haunting the world and not living in it.