Review: Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk (reviewed by Shelley Harp)

Silver Girl.jpgSilver Girl

By Leslie Pietrzyk

317 Pages

The Unnamed Press, 2018

ISBN: 978-1944700515

$17.99

What becomes of someone who suffered severe trauma throughout their childhood?

Silver Girl, by Leslie Pietrzyk, explores this question through the first-person narration of a girl who has survived abuse, and who, at the end of high school, exiles herself from her family and friends in Iowa to Northwestern University, hoping to gain a fresh start, hoping no one will find out who she really is and what she has done.

Publicity for this book suggests it is about the still-unsolved Tylenol murders in Chicago during the early 1980s, but it’s not. Pietrzyk uses the murders as a plot device, but overall this is a book that serves as a true portrait of late-adolescent female friendships which, even though the novel is set in the past, are, today, still pertinent dynamics between women.

On the first day in her dorm, our nameless narrator meets Jess, a girl who lives on the same floor, and the two hit it off, becoming best friends and, eventually, roommates in an off-campus apartment by junior year.

Our narrator then tries to subtly infuse herself as a surrogate member of Jess’ wealthy family (who have suffered their own traumas) because being close to them and accepted by them serves as a bandage for her past.

Except the narrator cannot sustain neutrality in anything. Even the very concept of remaining unnamed throughout the book—choosing anonymity is an action to be something. Likewise, the narrator, as she hides her past, struggles with the version of ‘not her’ she assumes because ‘not her’ is still someone who does terrible things.

Her actions begin with innocent manipulations as if this concept of being ‘not-her’ has somehow created someone blameless to replace Jess’ dead sister; though, when Jess’ unknown half-sister comes along, our narrator forfeits her status as Jess’ best friend and instead chooses to stake her own spot among the family’s matters.  Through this, Jess’ family finds out “the kind of girl” the narrator is (though, what they know is hardly the tip of the iceberg). Their rejection leads her to escalate into episodes of full-out stalking and, later, to take a long hard look at committing suicide. Her studies, her main goal of going to college, become conflated, and our narrator must make a choice on whether to continue the farce of being “just your average college girl” or to deal with her haunting past.

Pietrzyk writes enthralling, descriptive prose and is a masterful and calculated storyteller, but Silver Girl is not the feel-good novel of the year, nor will it relieve the itch for a typical heroic tale. And that’s okay. Instead, Silver Girl is the study of the first years of independence for a girl who has survived the unimaginable. It is also a confessional for someone who does regrettable things partly because she’s broken and partly because she’s trying to survive. As a result, Silver Girl is not escapism—it is the fictionalization of real-life.

What the narrative requires, though, is to be viewed through a lens of moral ambiguity. It is understood that the main character reflects on her story after many years have passed. This distance allows her to provide a kindness towards herself as she recollects events, but, despite this, her writing doesn’t exactly construe whether or not she feels guilt.

For example, she repeatedly calls herself, or is referred to being, a slut—a loaded term for the times. (Still is, admittedly, but, to give context, by 1980 the political temperature was the “God Bless America” of the evangelical right, and where Ronald Reagan suggested that the cure to AIDS could be found in the rejection of neutral values and an adherence to virtuous principals such as fidelity and sexual abstinence.[1] Basically, the way to cure AIDS was to not get it in the first place.) Despite this, the narrator is unwilling to even nod towards identifying as a victim even though she very much is. Additionally, there are slights done to her by Jess which initially suggest that Jess is the antagonist in the story, however, in Silver Girl, it seems everyone is in some way an antagonist. (But isn’t this, then, real life? Who out of any of us is perfect? Further, how do you, or, rather, should you even try to judge someone who has been through so much?) The moral line, it seems, is drawn with child abuse, but even then, the narrator doesn’t conclude this until she’s exhausted all efforts to flee her past and has received a ticket out of her poverty, of which she spends a considerable time obsessing over.

Silver Girl is divided into four parts—The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Each serve slices of the narrator’s first three years at Northwestern and the little bit of time before and after she’s there. One reads these interwoven sections with hope, longing for some sort of redemption for the novel’s characters; however, resolution is dangled far from reach. This is due, in part, to the novel’s structure which is in itself a contrived distribution of the typical dramatic action typically offered by a novel. That said, there is more than one way to tell a story and Pietrzyk delivers introductions, conflict, climax, and denouement. The story’s timeline and rising action, though, is folded in on itself in a cyclical tumult only fitting for the “survival mode” narrative that Silver Girl is. The result is a story that leaves the reader to often wonder which way is up.

By the novel’s conclusion, though, we gain a sense of true north as our narrator orients herself and makes choices that give an answer to the initial question: that one’s life which may have been pointed unavoidably towards tragedy can at some point experience peace.–Shelley Harp

 

[1] Curry, George. (1987) ‘Reagan says AIDS solution resets with morals’ The Chicago Tribune. April 2. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1987-04-02-8701250240-story.html

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