Elizabeth Marro's affecting and beautiful first novel, "Casualties," does not shy away from shame, regret and self-loathing -- the underside of parenting. She takes us places we don't want to go, makes us look, makes us feel. Her characters' journey becomes ours and, as a consequence, we exult in their hard-won reckonings.
"Casualties" begins on the West Coast, in San Diego, where Ruth Nolan, an executive for a company that supplies contractors to support the military in Iraq, sees her own son Robbie enlist in the Marines and take two tours of duty in Iraq. She must put on a good face, given her work and all the ex-military in the company, but she is distraught. And relieved. For once, she does not have to carry all the responsibility for her troubled son.
Ruth and Robbie's interdependence is fraught with frustration and hurt. Ruth raised Robbie by herself, almost from the beginning. While still living on the East Coast, she separated from his father in order to join RyCon, a startup at the time. Robbie's father was later killed in a skiing accident. Loss was a constant for Ruth. Her mother walked out on Ruth and her brother, Kevin, when they were young, leaving the maternal grandparents to raise them on the family farm in northern New Hampshire. What family Ruth and Robbie have left live in northern New Hampshire, a part of the country Ruth couldn't wait to escape. She felt confined and limited there, while Robbie loved the mountains, the family, the farm work and the fishing.
Mother and son, alone together in San Diego, tackled life head on. Ruth, competitive and ambitious, helped grow RyCon as she tried to help Robbie with his demons, including depression. But Robbie resisted Ruth, whose demands and standards were not a good fit for him. They butted heads in what feels like all-too-familiar, perhaps inescapable family dynamics.
Robbie's suicide, which reads as inevitable, is nonetheless a loss Ruth cannot comprehend. It is a suicide that, while provoked by war, has deeper roots and Ruth knows that. There are reasons she feels responsible, complicated as they may be, and her unbearable pain prevents even the possibility of grieving. She does the one thing she and Robbie enjoyed together -- she gets in her car and drives. Thus we head into the heart of the story.
On the road, Ruth meets Casey, a 36-year-old injured veteran who has settled for a scrap of a life gambling in casinos and sleeping off benders in a tiny trailer. He suffers pain from an ill-fitting "faker," or prosthesis, and he endures bad headaches. He reluctantly helps Ruth after she is brutally attacked in a parking lot in Nevada. Their brief, but life-altering connection, made during a road trip to the East Coast, is intense, at times ugly, and finally, redemptive. The need for absolution is all-powerful and never guaranteed. Kudos to Marro for diving in and surfacing with our hearts in hand.
"Casualties" is also adeptly plotted. RyCon, unbeknownst to Ruth, had failed to process insurance paperwork for many of its military contractors in war zones. A pending merger with another, bigger company may have spurred these questionable business practices. Families and injured contractors' insurance claims have not been paid, and they begin a visible and condemning protest outside RyCon's offices just as Robbie gets back from Iraq.
Ruth discovers, once on the road, that RyCon's owners -- her longtime colleagues purposely circumvented rules. She must decide whether to provide information that may help the contractors' case against RyCon. If she does blow the whistle, she will lose everything -- her investment in the company and her professional standing. At 47, she will be totally discredited.
Loss, both the kind you do not ask for and the kind you invite, does not mean starting over. It does not mean giving up. Marro has other plans for loss. Loss is sometimes the clearing out of the path we take to heal ourselves of wounds long neglected. Loss opens up to vision.
Marro now lives in San Diego, California. Early in her professional career, she lived in and reported on Boston's North Shore, including Rockport and Salem, Mass., for what was then Essex County Newspapers. She will be on Cape Ann and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to read from "Casualties" in April.
"Casualties" By Elizabeth Marro. Berkley, New York, 2016. 358 pages. $15.
Rae Padilla Francoeur's memoir, "Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair," is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.