Reviewed by Chris Loza
MARILOU IS EVERYWHERE
By Sarah Elaine Smith
288 pages. Riverhead Books.
Marilou is Everywhere hums with life in its portrait of a rural town in Pennsylvania. The first two pages simmer with a fierce longing to live that is exquisite in its pain and loneliness. The chapters that succeed show the narrator quietly slips into another teenage girl’s life when the latter disappears after a camping gone sideways.
Cindy, the youngest of three siblings from two different absentee fathers and a barely there mother, has never known proper guidance and supervision from her mother. Oftentimes, the three siblings are left on their own devices for days on end when their mother goes away for work or some other similar excuses. One time, their mother leaves with a vague excuse of work in another location and the days turn into weeks, food runs out, and her older brothers Virgil and Clinton begin to look for ways to earn money. Cindy, more than ever, becomes more isolated and disconnected from the world, retreating deeply into her own fantasies as a way to adapt to the harsh realities of her life.
Sometimes Virgil takes her to join him in doing some housework at Bernadette’s house, which is always in a constant state of mess and chaos, so she can help inside while he mows the lawn or run some errands. Bernadette is the mother of Jude who disappeared after she did not return from camping with friends and was last seen, depending on who is talking, hitching a ride with a strange man or driving off far from the town to escape her mother whose mind holds memories the way a plastic bag with large holes holds water.
Despite Cindy and Jude’s stark difference in appearance, especially in skin color, Bernadette confuses Cindy for Jude. So while Jude becomes a missing person case, Cindy assumes her life in Bernadette’s house and Bernadette is none the wiser, except on some rare burst of lucidness.
What is striking in Smith’s writing is her ability to capture rural life in its ruthless and sometimes petty details. Reading this book feels like you are also inhabiting the lives of its characters in the same way that Cindy inhabits Jude’s life. Cindy, as the narrator, shows us the mind of a troubled and lonely girl navigating her place in a world that thinks less of those who are weird and different. In one dark and wicked turn, when Bernadette gets a call, we see Cindy refusing to let go of the fantasy she has claimed as her own reality.
The book gets its title from Virgil and Jude’s banter where Virgil calls Jude as Marilou. And while Jude is mostly absent from the book, it is a perfectly apt title because Jude is felt throughout the book and her absence allows Cindy to substitute her life with Jude in the same way that Marilou, in Virgil and Jude’s silly repartee, is a substitute for Jude.
While the story is not wholly invested in the missing person case, it becomes the catalyst that reveals the characters’ reaction to the one missing. What happens when a person has gone missing? Who takes her place? And how does it affect those closest to her? How does a small, rural town react to the disappearance? It doesn’t follow the investigation about the missing person faithfully, but it strips away, slowly, the ugly truths and prejudices of those left behind. And for Cindy, it becomes the perfect opportunity to live out a fantasy of living a life she has always imagined. But as is always in the case of the grass being greener on the other side, not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes the shine and sparkle hide all the rotten truth we fear we’ll discover inside.
The book reminds me of another book, Marilynne Robinson’s excellent Housekeeping, that portrays rural life with such precious and unflinching detail, revealing the layers of a character’s mind as they navigate the seeming irrelevance of their rural life. When I finished both books, one I’ve read years ago, I came away with a feeling that somebody actually lived this life. Somewhere out there, there are those who would do anything to live someone else’s life. On some days, we wake up feeling that way. And on those days, stories such as this save us because we see our what-ifs reflected on the pages, drinking their words like water in the desert and we get to live through another day.
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Chris has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter and Instagram @cd_loza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]