Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

Short Take: So much beauty amid so much decay.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

Well, my nerdlings, it’s THAT time again, and by that time, I’m of course referring to refrigerator-cleaning time. I have the best of intentions when grocery shopping, and TOTALLY AM PLANNING on eating salads for lunch every day and fruit for dessert every night, but somehow, the burgers and ice cream always materialize, and some portion of fresh produce always ends up a puddle of slime in a bag pushed toward the back of the shelf. Throw in my usual round of late-winter blahs, and it’s truly a wretched time of year.

But during this difficult time, I can take solace in one small thing: that I don’t live in Atlantic City, NJ, aka the moldy fridge fruit of North America. Between the hurricane/superstorm, opioid epidemic, and the economic and spiritual malaise that has affected most of the country for the last few years, it’s the place where hopes and dreams are born in a pile of glitter and die in a gutter pile of cigarette butts and broken glass. It’s also a city of startling contrasts – high rollers parking exotic cars on the street next to decaying pawn stores is a common sight.

And it’s there that Clara, (boardwalk tarot-reader who also has a smidge of genuine psychic ability), and Lily, (art curator who left her NYC career and everything else behind after a traumatic event) become friends. Atlantic City is also where a serial killer is preying on women just like Lily and Clara – the broken ones, the addicted ones, the ones who likely won’t be missed, the ones who have always somehow accepted that they would die young and in a terrible way, the ones whose beauty is being worn away by the ugliness of their desperate lives.

Y’all, I was prepared to not love this book. It’s not a spoiler to say that there are several chapters written from the perspective of the dead girls, the “Janes” (as in Jane Does) as they wait in a marsh for their bodies to be found. And to be honest, beautiful dead girls telling their stories has been done to death (heh) by a million and one Lovely Bones knock-offs. 

And yet.

There’s something so startlingly different about Please See Us. Maybe it’s the setting – there’s nothing picturesque about decrepit buildings populated by bruised and addicted hookers, nothing glamorous about young women with no future, so the flashes of beauty (and make no mistake, Ms. Mullen’s writing is beautiful, even when describing unspeakable ugliness) are that much more arresting.

Maybe it’s the way the reader is forced to stare, unblinking, at awful truths that most of us are used to avoiding. In other books, when [spoiler], there would be some plot twist that would keep it from happening, but not this one. For a book about a beautiful precocious teenage psychic in which we get the perspective of dead girls, the level of realism is astonishing.

But I think that what really flibbered my gibbets with Please See Us is the tiny but powerful thread of optimism throughout the whole thing. Every single person being pulled into the undertow of their own desperate circumstances believes deep down that it’s going to change – this is the last trick, the last hit, the winning ticket, the rose growing in the garbage pile. And isn’t that all of us? Surely I’m not the only one who opens the refrigerator door that I just closed, somehow believing that a nutritious yet delicious low-carb-low-calorie-totally-satisfying meal that I actually want to eat has probably materialized in there in the last five seconds, right?

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and some fruit – hold the mold, but bring on the fermentation if you know what I mean and I think you do.)

Loved this book!!

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