My heart broke more than once while I was reading Girls in Trouble, but that didn’t stop me from taking a sick day from work so I could finish it in less than 24 hours. Caroline Leavitt has created believable, flawed but sympathetic characters who, despite their best intentions, are caught up in a mess largely of their own making. While there are no guaranteed happily-ever-afters for her characters, and the novel’s subject is wrenchingly poignant, the reader is left with a feeling that even a realistic ending can be full of hope.
The novel begins in medias res with 16 year old Sara Rothman about to give birth, accompanied by her worried parents, Abby and Jack. But Sara wishes only to see Eva and George Rivers, the 43-year old couple she has chosen to be her baby’s adoptive parents. When she gives birth to a healthy baby girl, everyone expects Sara – a smart, ambitious high-school junior – to return to the life she has put on hold for 9 months, but Sara has changed and can do little else but think of the baby she held so briefly.
Sara had barely even kissed a boy before she became involved with Danny Slade, a handsome bad boy who disappeared soon after she told him about her pregnancy. Her parents refused to even consider allowing Sara keep the baby. Eva and George seemed like the perfect solution – they wanted an open adoption, they pampered Sara, and they assured her that she could maintain contact with the baby. But once they bring baby Anne home, Eva and George realize they can’t keep their promise. Sara wants to see Anne every day, giving Eva little opportunity to bond with her adopted daughter. Eva, a gifted kindergarten teacher, is further frustrated when she has trouble soothing Anne, and is resentful that Sara can do so just by picking her up. When Sara’s daily visits become an unhealthy obsession, Eva and George impose limits, with devastating consequences that keep Sara apart from Anne for more than 15 years. But even after Sara goes to college in New York City, graduates and finds a job, thoughts of the daughter she never sees still haunt her, interfering with her work and love life.
Girls in Trouble is most effective in its first half, as it focuses on 16 year old Sara and the immediate aftermath of Anne’s birth, which illustrate that the road to Hell is truly paved with good intentions. Eva and George think they are venturing into a “brave new world” with an open adoption, and they shower Sara with limitless attention while she’s pregnant. They hadn’t reckoned, however, with the effect that their affection – and its abrupt curtailment once the baby is born – would have on a love-starved teenager whose parents are (understandably) angry and upset. They also hadn’t expected Sara to have such fierce maternal instincts at a young age, or for Eva to have difficulty connecting with her baby. You can see how everyone has tried to do the right thing, and what a mess they’ve made as a consequence.
The novel still packs a wallop but loses some impact as it quickly covers the years until Anne is 15 – the same age that Sara was when she became pregnant – and fate brings biological mother and daughter together. I came to care so much about these characters in the book’s first 150 pages that I resented seeing the years fly by in one or two sentences in its second half.
With heartfelt but unembellished prose, Leavitt creates realistic, memorable characters without villains or heroes. She’s especially skilled at getting inside the head of an adolescent girl and the universal “yearning to accept who you are coupled with the yearning to be someone else.” If you’re a mother, especially a mother of an adolescent girl, Girls in Trouble will leave an especially strong impression. Both Abby and Eva are unable to fully relate to their daughters, leaving the girls vulnerable to risky behavior and unwise decisions. Leavitt never comes down on either side of the nature vs. nurture question – Abby is just as ineffective with her biological daughter Sara as Eva is with her adoptive daughter Anne – but she sends an unequivocal message about the lasting damage that a strained relationship can cause. The picture she paints of open adoption is enough to make anyone considering this option think more than twice.
Leavitt’s previous novel, Coming Back to Me, was a similarly serious story with a slightly more upbeat ending than Girls in Trouble. Here the conclusion is bittersweet but not tragic, as the characters make difficult compromises to balance what they want with what is best for the ones they love. Girls in Trouble is not an easy book to read, but it’s highly recommended for readers who appreciate the finely-tuned writing of Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen.