“Marilou is Everywhere” is the debut novel by author Sarah Elaine Smith. It tells the story of Cindy, a 14 year old girl living in rural PA with her two older brothers and a mother who is always gone or in the process of going. Cindy lives a life that envies the pallor of her hair. She spends much of her time dogging truancy agents that have come to ask why she hasn’t returned to school until Jude Vanderjohn goes missing. Jude, a beautiful teen from a more affluent family leaves an almost Cindy-sized place in her world, and it doesn’t take long for Cindy to find herself there. “Marilou is Everywhere” is a book about choices, pain, and the things we do to avoid them.
I used to be the kind of reader that only sought out stories that aligned with mine. I wanted more lesbians, more black girls, more tales of lost children. Now, as a more mature reader, I like to think I’ve moved away from that desire. A book isn’t good because I relate to it. In fact, I think a good book can take a character I don’t entirely relate to, who’s decisions I don’t understand or condone, and make me grieve for them. Marilou does this seamlessly.
I don’t know anything about Greene County, or growing up white and poor in rural PA. I do know something about the difficulty of mothers. I do know something about the silent and arduous process of emptying. When I found out the plot of this book, I knew the mother bits were going to resonate with me, and it was part of the draw toward me reading it. However, the most emotional and profound moments in the book are when Cindy has even a passing recognition of her own emptiness, the realities of her life that she can’t touch with words so she becomes a keen observer of everything else around her. Other times, Cindy takes her suffering off a clothesline and lays it over something unrelated. It seems that when it is separate from her she is able to name it: “Sometimes my sorrow lay over all I saw, like a neon light.”
The prose in this book alone will make you cry. Many reviews have pointed out that Smith is a poet with lines in the book reading like poetry. It feels to me that this is the only way to capture the internal dialogue of Cindy, her questions and hurts. I’ve often said for myself that poetry is a different language, one that is adjacent to whatever mother tongue but with added dimension. Cindy’s language for her life has this extra dimension because she is an observer, poised above her life and the things that happen to her. It isn’t until she steps into Jude’s life that a different language is called for.
The question of Jude, the disappearing girl, is one that haunts the book. We as readers don’t get to forget Jude as we watch Cindy surround herself with books and exotic fruit preserves. Jude is ever present. Jude is also the only black girl in town. Here in 2019, we know that when black and brown girls go missing, the narrative is steered toward runaway: of course she left, that’s what they do, if you were living her life you would run away too. The people of this town are no exception, it is easier to believe racial stereotypes than to put any real effort into finding a lost girl. This is where Smith as an author really excels. It would have been easy to craft Cindy or any other character into a hero, a white savior, someone who would stand and say “we’re wrong here! Something’s wrong! We have to look for her!” Listening to Smith talking about the process of writing the book, there is a point at which the character’s are no longer an extension of the author’s mind and morals; they become figures that make their own decisions even if the writer does not agree with them. This story does not allow itself to become a “woke” tale or a petulant finger-wagging at rural Americans. It is a stunningly humane portrait of the lives of its characters.
The big choice that Cindy makes in this novel, the one with the most dire consequences, is one that hurt me. Reading it, as I saw and felt it coming, my throat got tight, my breath grew rapid and coarse, I was screaming in my head. I put it down for a while. That reaction (I’m romantic and prone to dramatics so forgive ME) is what carries the book. I have so much empathy for Cindy but watching her do the things she does pisses me off. Reading her rationale in the aftermath is almost infuriating because I’ve said similar things to myself when I have made decisions that hurt other people. I just can’t stress enough how beautiful and real this novel is. To illicit such a response from me that I feel betrayed by it’s protagonist. That’s damn good writing.
This choice brings me back to emptiness and the drastic things we do to survive. Cindy survived by being Jude. Others, like Bernadette, turn to drinking until there is barely a human left to inhabit. Alistair, Jude’s father, leverages his money into power, offering up a $50,000 reward for Jude’s safe return. Would that amount of money make any of the people of Greene County look harder? No. Cindy chooses to become Jude to avoid facing the more daunting choice of telling the truth about her pain. To become a different person seems an extreme decision but for a 14 year old without the support or language to face her truth, it may have been the easiest thing to do.
The novel closes with what might be some of my favorite lines ever written:
“I do not care to stand in the doorway of myself, making a list of punishments. I’m the kind who can only see the road ahead so far. I’m the kind that has to get empty somehow. I tried all the other ways. The only one that wouldn’t kill me was taking care of friends and wildlife. I’m no martyr, I promise. No savior, no hero, no saint— I eat too many figs to qualify, I’m afraid. Neither do I think some tally will be balanced. I’m not sure I can be forgiven in full.”
This is the part where i really cried cried. Books just have a way of getting me. I knew I was gonna cry but I read that and thought “oop here it comes!” Cindy’s final choice is to move on, to forgive herself, even if not in full. In this small moment there is so much growth, and still pain, still a yearning for emptiness, but a happiness in-spite. I think most of us have to get empty sometimes, we’ve all disappeared in our own ways. Cindy understands this about herself but doesn’t make any grand promises about changing. What she does, what we all can do, is little things. Clearing a snowy driveway, apologizing, birthing some baby goats. No one leaves a star, as they say.