"The Blue Girl," Laurie Foos' sixth novel, seems simple enough at the outset. A girl with blue skin is spotted swimming one day after "the cottage people had finally packed up and gone" from a small, nameless town.
She swims past the buoys that mark the "No swimming" zone. As three women and their three daughters gawk and watch the blue girl flail about, a sensitive teenager named Audrey swims out to save her. The events — events largely of the mind — that follow get a little more complicated.
The three women are deeply affected. Their troubles at home compel them to bake their secrets into moon pies. Irene, one of the six narrators of the book, says, "We present them to her in the quiet of her room while she lies beneath the old, pitted, gray comforter and sucks in ragged breaths." The blue girl's caretaker is a mysterious old woman who remains, like the rest of the characters, mostly silent. She "shook her head, back and forth, back and forth, the way a child would."
The challenges of writing a book with six narrators don't elude Foos. Each voice is distinct and nuanced, but so subtly that you sometimes have to force yourself to slow down. When Irene is speaking, for example, the daughters seem as straightforward as a fairy tale; Caroline's the smart one, Rebecca's the pretty one, and Audrey, her own daughter, is the dangerous one. But when Caroline narrates, you learn that not only is she smart, but she's obsessed with the brain and addled with angst: "How do any of us know whether at any second — like right here, right now — we won't just stop?"
The three daughters also have an interest in the blue girl, and soon enough, she begins to haunt everyone's dreams.
The metaphor, rather than a reductive "blue girl equals sadness," is much more complicated. Who is this girl, exactly? How did she get this way? The answer seems less important than the question of how far three women will go to hide their unhappiness and exploit someone who is innocent, different and feared.
The manifold neuroses that haunt these families pressurize the novel, and reading it can feel claustrophobic — but poetic all the same. One husband, after a mental breakdown, plays with a Nerf ball all day; a troubled son thrashes about at any disruption of order; another husband is almost entirely absent. The prose is clean, exacting and approachable, which makes the arrangement of the book — and the swirling vortex of complicated psychologies — even more impressive and heartbreaking.
Josh Cook's fiction and reviews have appeared in the Iowa Review, Thirty-Two Magazine, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.