“There is the surface, and there is everything underneath” might be the motto of these 11 connected stories following the lives of students from a New Jersey high school into their 30s.
In 1996, 15-year-old Tess naively yearns to save her adored older brother from moving into a halfway house after a stint in rehab his senior year. In realizing she can’t protect him, Tess establishes newcomer Groves’ theme: how coping with the loss of innocence forms a person. Menacing male figures, dead-end jobs, and drug use are reoccurring motifs. The storytelling is not straightforward; it follows no chronology and moves among different contexts and viewpoints. In her 20s, first-grade teacher Amelia avoids dark suspicions concerning her husband by following random news stories, including one about weird Sally from high school running for mayor. Sally seems less weird than sad as a lonely freshman going to desperate measures to befriend popular senior Leslie. And Sally is irrelevant to Leslie’s emotional disintegration in the years after she graduates. Meanwhile, Amelia has abandoned teaching and marriage for waitressing by the time she runs across former classmate James; the dangerously sexy senior on whom Tess’ friend Margo had a crush has become a painfully lonely 35-year-old accountant. Margo, whose adolescence was disrupted by the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, unleashes her repressed rage at her 22nd birthday party. She particularly lashes out at her needy friend Rae, clueless about the trauma readers will later learn Rae suffered after a robbery and rape attempt, a trauma parallel to one Amelia’s ex-sister-in-law, Corrine, handles with a different set of emotional apparatus. Teachers, as parents, also enter the mix. School counselor Mark watches his life collapse after his daughter’s kidnapping in the particularly moving story “Grieving a Life of Water.” By the 20th high school reunion that Tess attends with her brother, futures remain uncertain but not hopeless.
This cat’s cradle of characters and storylines—in which intersections are sometimes fleeting, sometimes acute, sometimes permanent—deftly exposes the challenges, and terrors, of becoming an adult.