In The Life of Reason, George Santayana famously notes that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it–or, as the popular interpretation of this dictum would have it, that we need to learn from our mistakes. The problem that Lucy Pescitelli, the protagonist of Susan Barr-Toman’s debut novel, When Love Was Clean Underwear, faces, however, is that she doesn’t have much of a past to speak of and, as a result, hasn’t made the mistakes that the rest of us made in our teens with respect to dating, friendship, and relating to other people in general. As a result, she spends much of the novel attempting to navigate the choppy waters of adult relationships–something she’s never done, despite the fact that she’s nearing thirty.
The novel begins with Lucy agonizing over her dying mother’s request to be euthanized. That she carries out her mother’s wishes by smothering her with a pillow is entirely fitting, as the mother has been smothering Lucy with her own brand of “love” for over a decade. Indeed, despite her death, the mother’s presence is palpable throughout the novel. She haunts Lucy night and day, causing the protagonist to vacillate between doubting her every instinct and feeling guilty for everything she does.
Compounding the problems that Lucy must overcome is the South Philly neighborhood where she resides. In effect, the South Philadelphia that Barr-Toman has created is the ghost of Lucy’s mother writ large. Its will is unbending, its assumptions uncompromising, its outlook provincial. It is, in short, a closed universe with its own rules and regulations, both spoken and unspoken, that hem Lucy in, almost to the point of claustrophobia. Lucy, to put it bluntly, is in an inescapable (though well-meaning) circle of hell consisting of row homes, nosy neighbors, and not enough parking.
Given Lucy’s lack of prospects, the challenge that Barr-Toman faces as a writer is taking a character who’s never stood up for herself and making her do so. To put it another way, the challenge is taking a figure who isn’t quite a character yet (i.e., she has no sense of self outside of her mother, no real motivation outside of a vague wish to keep her crime a secret) and to allow that figure to blossom into full “characterhood.” That When Love Was Clean Underwear is a character-driven novel makes this challenge all the more daunting, yet it’s a challenge that Barr-Toman meets expertly by filling the early chapters of the novel with a cast of memorable characters who pick up the slack for Lucy and from whom, as the novel progresses, must wrest control of the narrative that is her life. The end result is a lovingly crafted coming of age story that gradually (and almost without warning) builds to a hard-fought, spirited declaration of independence.
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