"Being around women whose opinions don't count for anything makes you lazy," says Ike Bradshaw, a prison guard whose voice is one of the four that narrate Susanna Moore's newest novel. He's talking about the inmates, of course, the women of Sloatsburg Correctional Institution who taunt, yell, fight and flirt with him, day in and day out. The context is left a little ambiguous, though, so he could be referring to the wife who recently left him. He could also be talking about Louise Forrest, the prison psychiatrist who is also his sometime lover and the main protagonist of this dark tale. Moore's books straddle a line between the "popular" and the "literary," for want of better terms. (The best known of them, In The Cut, was made into a recent film starring Meg Ryan.) She deals in the pop-fiction crime universe of killers and victims, but comes at it from an angle that makes genre distinctions feel totally arbitrary.
Louise Forrest has taken a new position as chief psychiatrist at the prison, despite having much more lucrative and less stressful prospects elsewhere. This confuses everyone: neither the inmates nor the other prison personnel can tell which side she's on. She may have started out wanting to work there for some high-minded social justice reason, which she is now too exhausted to recall. Her party-boy husband Rafael has left her and gone to Hollywood, leaving her with their son, Ransom. She is fighting, with all her might, to hold herself together. Her dry wit keeps her from losing it entirely. "When I'm feeling overwhelmed," she says, "...I remind myself that I am a physician. I am the mother of an eight-year-old boy. I am not an inmate. I have not embezzled from the Ladies' Garment Workers Union or killed my common-law husband with a George Foreman grill." The fact that she has to remind herself she isn't in prison illustrates just how disorienting it can be to spend a career inside an institution. The prisoners are only there because they have to be. Who would CHOOSE to spend time in such a place?
Along with Louise, the other main narrator is Helen, an inmate and one of Louise's patients. Helen is an infamous child-killer. She murdered her son and daughter at the behest of unseen dark forces, and Moore clearly modeled her on Andrea Yates, a deeply religious and occasionally psychotic woman who drowned her five kids a few years back. Moore's skill lies in creating such instantly recognizable character voices that you would know exactly who was speaking even if there weren't any line breaks to indicate it. Helen seems oddly sweet and innocent, incapable of truly understanding what she has done. She sends a fan letter and a photo of her kids -- the kids she killed -- to a famous Hollywood starlet.
That starlet, Angie, is the fourth narrator in the chorus, a vapid, drug-addled social climber who is sleeping with Dr. Forrest's estranged husband. It's a bit of a cute coincidence, and a couple other not-very-believable coincidences mar what is otherwise a very engaging novel.
Helen recounts her therapy sessions with Forrest. She talks about her hideously abusive childhood, her marriage to a controlling preacher, and the black-robed Horsemen of the Apocalypse that come riding their black stallions into her prison cell on occasion. "The Horsemen believed in me, and I believed in them," she says. "The idea that I might of imagined them, well, I deserve to die if that is true." (We always know a shift into Helen's voice because she says "might of" instead of "might have.") Through Helen's eyes we discover the infinitely complex universe of life in a women's prison. Barely able to function on any level, Helen is doing her best to navigate the jealousies, alliances, romances, breakups, business opportunities and time-wasting craft projects that make up the bulk of daily life for the women of Sloatsburg.
The most fascinating aspect of Moore's novel is her dissection of the ongoing soap operatic relations among the prisoners. "Families" are formed, with mothers, fathers, children, cousins, nieces, nephews. Packaged commissary snacks are used as ingredients for all kinds of unhealthy and gross-sounding concoctions. If a woman is seen chewing bubble gum, it's a sign she's sleeping with a guard. Love affairs -- complete with ungrammatical, grade-school-style mash notes -- are constant, even between women who profess to hate lesbians. It's all an attempt to find some kind of warmth or human kindness -- or failing that, some kind of control or advantage -- in a cold and unkind place. The endless rules and regulations make no sense: one inmate is denied a visit with her child because the kid is wearing a hooded coat -- the hood is a dress code violation. Prisoners are not adults anymore, they've become the "Big Girls" of the title.
There is another entire storyline that comes into play, involving Forrest and Ike Bradshaw, the guard, and how their relationship lights a fuse in the mind of Forrest's son Ransom that leads to tragic consequences. We find out a lot more about Angie the starlet, whose insular life of manicures and tanning sessions ends up sounding like its own kind of prison. The characters are unforgettable, for sure. What doesn't always work so well is the story that brings them all together. Some aspects don't feel believable, and some of the shocking-twist plot points truly come out of nowhere. The up-to-the minute cultural references will probably sound dated almost immediately (in one scene, two guys in a bar debate Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's divorce). But overall, The Big Girls works more often than it doesn't. The larger points Moore makes -- about male-female relations, motherhood, and whether anyone is truly free -- will stick with you for a long time.