Tennant-Moore’s sharp debut follows a defiantly self-destructive young woman—powerfully intelligent and profoundly lost—as she grapples with identity, spirituality, and purpose.
Elsie, recently returned from a miserable year in Paris—her alternative to college—and now reveling in her own free fall, has a job writing obituaries for her small-town Southern California paper and an explosive relationship with an alcoholic rockabilly guitarist/drug dealer named Jared (“Here was an answer to the question of what to do with my life,” she notes, bleakly). Trying to escape both Jared and her current existence, she buys a ticket to Sri Lanka. “I had known other versions of myself that allowed me to hope the situation I was in would not be my life,” she explains. Sri Lanka, appealing for both its incongruity—“a tropical paradise that was also a recent war zone”—and its distance, offers a kind of desperate hope. This could be the beginning of an exhausted cliché: young, pretty American woman has transformative experience traveling through Third World country; meets local people; finds meaning and purpose. But it isn’t—this is not that book. Elsie does develop meaningful connections, of course, but even her most intimate interactions are fraught, warm but complicated; upon returning home, she is not transformed. “I felt I could handle the wrong choices now, that I could live the old life in a new way,” she explains: more Jared, more drifting, a fledgling French translation project, another man, another troubled relationship. And then a letter arrives that draws her back to Sri Lanka for a trip that is both deeper and more demanding than the first. With bracing insight, Tennant-Moore captures not only Elsie’s inner life, but also her physical existence; the novel stands out not only for its emotional precision, but for its incredible attention to the visceral realities of having a body.
Often unsettling, sometimes funny, always meticulously observed; a quietly intoxicating novel that resists easy answers.