A soldier returns from Iraq and finds herself an outsider in Cara Hoffman’s ‘Be Safe I Love You’

Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty, Cara Hoffman’s provocative second novel offers a window into events we’d prefer to see less clearly. A soldier, Lauren Clay, returns from her tour of duty in Iraq. She struggles to adjust to civilian life. Her family and friends strive for jovial fakery because they cannot bear to consider what she has experienced. We might do the same. “[T]hey were supposed to pretend … even as they lived in the shadow of the base, and heard reports from places like Fallujah, or read about disastrous brutal homecomings, they were supposed to pretend that what she did was some angel’s work in hell.”

A former investigative reporter who’s currently teaching at Bronx Community College, Hoffman has a knack for getting to the heart of critical contemporary issues. Her haunting first novel So Much Pretty — about a young woman who goes missing in a rural town — is a devastating look at violence against women and the complicated landscape of vengeance. Disguised as a crime story, it presents the sort of rigorous moral questions that have no easy answers and sear themselves in your memory for a good long time.

Be Safe I Love You is similar in that regard, its characters finely crafted and its insights into human strength and frailty pointed (we often confuse the two, to Hoffman’s way of thinking). Like its predecessor, the novel is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions (the working class being more directly affected by American warfare than anyone else). Be Safe I Love You is a terrific story, suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it’s also a call to action, a heartfelt demand for us to pay closer attention to the costly fallout of violence.

Hoffman doesn’t point fingers at individuals who don’t know how to cope with such fallout; the system that pulls young men and women into cauldrons like Vietnam and Iraq and spits them back broken is the problem. Even so, the military can be an economic godsend for some families: Lauren walked away from a promising singing scholarship and joined up to keep her mentally fragile father and wisecracking, trusting 13-year-old brother Danny out of poverty (her mother left them years earlier).

Lauren’s father and Danny are thrilled she’s back and safe, unable to see much beyond their own relief. But they’re not the only people in Lauren’s circle unaware of how she’s reeling. Neither her best friend Holly, a single mom who stayed in town after graduation, nor her ex-boyfriend Shane, a Swarthmore student home to visit his blue-collar family for the holidays, understand how Lauren has changed. Even an old family friend who’s a Vietnam veteran doesn’t quite see that though there are no IEDs hidden along the muddy roads of their upstate New York town, other minefields loom for Lauren.

“She was not living side by side with the rest of them anymore. … [I]t was excruciating the way she knew every little thing that would happen. The way she could see people thinking things about her they wouldn’t say. The filthiest secret of all is hiding in plain sight all over the world; they put up monuments to it and have parades. But when it’s just you, just one person alone in the same room with them, they stare, watch you like you’ll do something wrong now. Because deep down they knew you were doing something wrong in the first place.”

Lauren’s intention is to head to a remote part of Canada and get a job on the oil rigs with Daryl, a soldier she served with in Iraq, but she twists around restlessly, visiting old haunts, having brief, intense sex with Shane, then shoving him away. She grows more and more impatient when these people she used to love refuse to obey her. She could return to singing but rejects the idea, and the weight of her memories — what happened to her in Iraq? — winds the book’s tension ever tighter.

Be Safe I Love You moves at a steady, compelling pace, and Hoffman is wonderfully descriptive of Lauren’s feelings of alienation, how she roils between love and rage. The author takes the time to develop the secondary characters — particularly Shane, who has moved easily into his new world but finds himself drawn back to Lauren and Danny, who’s obsessed with Arctic exploration — and she deftly re-creates the secrets, truths and character of a blue-collar town. Shane’s hard-boozing uncles “drank the way animals will eat things that are slightly poisonous in order to purge their guts.” One of them, Patrick, whose self-regard far outweighs his actual accomplishments, “didn’t actually know much. … but he did read on occasion, he did remember the names of titles and authors and memorized big words he liked the sounds of, and the uncanny nature of these acts where they lived was enough to convince him he was intelligent.” He was, Hoffman writes, “his own high-school sweetheart.”

How Lauren will ultimately cope with her future turns out to be a powerful mystery as she and Danny head north and she plans to put her survival training to good use. But Be Safe I Love You is so much more than a thriller; it’s a novel about family and sacrifice, loss and redemption. “I often want to get rid of all the words, you know?” Lauren’s singing instructor says, musing on the musical pieces he loves. “They’re so silly. So hollow.” But if anything, Hoffman proves that words are often the real tools of survival in this flawed but still often golden world.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.