320 pp. Penguin Random House
Teen suicides surpass road deaths for the age group in the United States, a segment of a sharply increasing suicide rate since the beginning of this century. The week before I read “Once, in Lourdes” by Sharon Solwitz, a novel about teens who make a suicide pact, the 15-year-old daughter of my child’s high school biology teacher flung herself to death from a highway overpass. I took the book on a long plane journey. It drew me in so completely that I whipped through the 300 pages during the short first leg of my haul. In the novel, narrator Kay recalls a summer fortnight in the 1960s from an adult perspective. She is part of a tight foursome, “tender and loyal.” They need each other to get through the challenges of school, home and small-town America in the Vietnam era. Solwitz brings these kids to life: smart, mocking CJ; tall, gentle Saint; fragile dancer Vera; and sturdy Kay. Their happy band begins to implode after Vera threatens to jump from the cyclone fence atop the lake bluff. In response, the friends pledge to kill themselves together in two weeks. Kay, looking back, wonders if she could have saved them.
Sharon Solwitz is a gorgeous writer, her lines both lush and taut. Teen relationships are memorable for intense emotions and impulsive hormones buzzing about like a cloud of bees, and Solwitz nails them all. Kay, CJ, Saint and Vera are entwined, everything is golden, at least in Kay’s recollection. The most developed portrait is of Vera—blunt-spoken, reckless and largely conforming to beauty standards (blonde, blue-eyed) in a way that Kay does not. Idolized by Kay, Vera appears in half-dissolved light, “like a fairy or angel.” Her sole physical imperfection is a misshapen hand. Her flaws of character and circumstance are revealed as the story progresses. She’s manipulative, troubled, utterly magnetic—and her friends are smitten. Vera also has trouble at home. We aren’t aware of this when she first threatens to jump.
Vera’s move is recalled as an idealized, Icarus moment: “She stood in the golden light of late afternoon, face, hair and bare shoulders ablaze,” saying she’ll spread her illusory wings. The three listening are “swept out of themselves, in a genuine rapture.” Kay tells us what happens during the two weeks leading to the group’s planned suicide. She views the period as glorious, but admits she may be an unreliable narrator. Her memory is interwoven with background from an omniscient point of view, revealing kids grappling with parental violence, incest, poverty, and confusion about sexuality. These same factors are found among at-risk teens to this day, along with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, bullying, crises in indigenous communities, and imitative behavior. Teenagers can feel overwhelmed and emotionally volatile. There is no single cause of suicides, but many strands of correlation. Suicides often appear in clusters, thought to be copycat in nature, but teenage suicide pacts are rare.
Solwitz’s lovely writing and Kay’s nostalgia risk gilding suicide’s horror. Kay remembers idealized friendships: a “mystical kind of love” in a “milky, shimmery haze.” The language is beautiful—beatific, even. Various spiritual concepts thread through the book: miracles, heaven and hell, transformation, birth and rebirth and an analogy with Lourdes, a place of healing. The characters are seen through a religious lens: Buddhist Saint who sits cross-legged and meditates and counters Vera’s evil; Jewish CJ with a conflicted relationship with his wealthy survivor father; all returning to themes of humility, penance and redemption. On the opening page, a photograph shows a dappled path to the summery lake and limitless horizon. In the center, a series of white frames suggests a portal. Is the author (or publisher) nodding to hippie spirituality disrupting traditional religions in the 60s, or are we to believe the characters find their way to a better place?
The transcendent view overlooks those left behind with the mess. We see no mangled bodies, oozing brains, blood, blued limbs, or broken parents—the aftermath lasts for less than two pages. How much responsibility lies with writers to tread carefully, amid a suicide epidemic? I recognize that the author’s focus is on events leading up to the suicide and she writes in the gap between the narrator’s teenaged perception and her adult viewpoint—but the narrative seemed unbalanced with the end too quickly wrapped up.
Nevertheless, Solwitz’s strength is getting under the skin of these adolescents and the way events turn on a dime. They get tattoos, commit to die, then as Kay says, “Forgetting the Pledge and its time constraints, I thought of growing my hair long. My hair was wavy and kind of thick. Would it look good long?” They are self-absorbed, troubled—and dangerous.