Charlotte Davis was a homeless addict who dealt with her pain by cutting herself, until that no longer sufficed and she tried to commit suicide. Committed to a psychiatric facility to heal and to try and learn to deal with some of her issues, Charlie seems to be recovering slowly, but the facility is expensive and what little family she has left in the world can’t support it anymore, so she’s sent away. A friend in Arizona takes her in, but that’s only the start of her journey, as the wounds of her past are never far from the surface. She has to try and hold down a job, find a place to live, navigate romantic drama, and most importantly–not cut herself. But the stress of not having enough money and of bad relationships with damaged people push her to the edge. Can she survive, or is Charlie too wounded to allow herself to heal?
Addiction and depression are really hard to make dramatically satisfying. At their base, these sorts of stories are about people doing something stupid and self-destructive – that they can often not even recognize as stupid and self-destructive – over and over again. On some level, Girl in Pieces does fall prey to this dynamic, with Charlie perpetually on the verge of backsliding, doing and saying a lot of things that are consciously pushing her to reinforce her worst habits and opinions. Narratively, that can be a little frustrating and seem a little artificial (hi, stock love triangle!), particularly when the book reaches its conclusion and writer Kathleen Glasgow is forced to wrap up a complex conflict in a too-neat bow involving quite possibly the most giving, generous, nurturing supporting cast in fiction history.
But on a character level, Girl In Pieces is pretty brilliant. Charlie has a lived-in quality that bypasses easy explanations in favor of nuanced character work, and for all that the structure of the story may occasionally feel repetitive, that actually helped me dig deeper into Charlie’s head. As Charlie struggles to control her need to cut in order to gain a semblance of control over her life, she often takes one step forward, a step back, a couple steps off to the side somewhere, and each time she narrowly avoids – or succumbs – to her need was wrenching. Glasgow has a gift for creating a character perpetually on the verge of realization but constantly held back from revelation by some of the people in her life. And when things go wrong, Glasgow and her lead hold nothing back, crafting a rapid-fire descent into emotional hell.
Girl In Pieces has a fairly rough introduction. I’ve read one too many books about troubled teens in a psych unit and the quirky, colorful characters that surround them to be excited by those opening pages. But Glasgow quickly finds a depth to her characters’ pain that I think is lacking in other, similar titles; Charlie is genuinely troubled, as are the rest of the women in the unit, and Glasgow both understands and empathizes. Narratively, Girl In Pieces was sometimes frustrating and sometimes sublime, but on a character level, it was pretty phenomenal all the way through. Glasgow has an intensely personal style of writing that drew me in and made me understand Charlie deeply, and while I have qualms about the book overall, this felt head-and-shoulders above other, similar fare. Sophisticated, well-written, and character-driven, Girl In Pieces could be emotionally trying, but it was worth it in the end.
Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Overwatch, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Delacorte Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.