[31 March 2009]
The main character in David Cristofano’s The Girl She Used to Be is Melody Grace McCartney, a fittingly ethereal name for a woman whose identity is scattered by a lifetime of lies. That’s because Melody has been in the witness protection program since she was six-years-old. She and her parents randomly witnessed mobster Tony Bovaro kill a man in the back of an Italian restaurant. Ever since that moment, Melody’s daily life has been shadowed by the stark reality that everything is temporary, and can change at a moment’s notice.
Cristofano introduces Melody as a 26-year-old math teacher named Sandra Clarke who lives in Columbia, Maryland. Her most defining characteristic is her loneliness. Ever since the mafia murdered her parents eight years ago, she’s spent her adulthood adrift from one generic town to the next, working in low-profile occupations. She’s restless and bored. The only way she forges connections to people is watching customers pick out greeting cards at Hallmark. So she’s got nothing to lose when she reports a fake threat to the Feds, and within hours she’s moving on to another life. But this time that other life is certain to be unlike any other.
The novel is told from Melody’s point of view, and Cristofano is largely able to pull off the female perspective. Melody’s stuck in girlhood, having little life experience with relationships. When she meets Sean Douglas, the new US Marshal assigned to her case, Cristofano begins unraveling just how trapped Melody has become by her own lack of experience. Douglas is a caring, calming presence to her, and she is vulnerable to anyone who can get a glimpse of her true self. That vulnerability is a telling insight into the decisions she ends up making.
Cristofano is adept at crafting realistic scenes that capture the tension between Melody and the Feds, most likely a credit to his years working within the government. The feds failed to protect her parents, and a lifetime spent being transported from one place to another, allowed to bring only the clothes on her back, have made her wary of their good intentions. When Jonathan, the son of mobster Tony Bovaro, enters her life, it’s a little easier to understand why she decides to go with him. She’s got nothing to lose.
What follows is somewhat predictable, as Jonathan and Melody’s unlikely pairing turns into a romantic connection. Though Jonathan is in the mafia who killed her parents, he’s surprisingly sensitive. He politely refrains from swearing around Melody, and averts his eyes when she changes.
To protect his father, Jonathan has been following Melody since she was a young girl, and has developed real feelings for her. Melody becomes swept away in her conflicted feelings for this man who is the only person who knows her true self, and the man whose family killed her parents. The novel goes at a quick pace as Melody and Jonathan dodge the Feds on their way to Jonathan’s family house. The plan is to show the Bovaros that Melody is no threat to them, that all she wants is her real life back.
This is Cristofano’s first novel, and it has a lot of the elements that make up a satisfying read. Snappy dialogue and scenes with unpredictable outcomes keep the novel going at a steady pace. But it’s also hard to get past the tired descriptions of Jonathan, who comes across more as a generic sketch of a mafia man with a soft spot, rather than a real character.
In the first half of the book, Cristofano effectively sets up Melody’s motivation to escape her life in the witness protection program. Details about her life with her parents, her love of math, and her struggles growing up without any friends makes Melody a compelling character. But as she gets further into her relationship with Jonathan, part of that character is lost. Cristofano doesn’t dive deeply enough into the inner struggle that would invariably be a part of falling in love with someone whose family is responsible for murdering your parents.
It’s hard not to compare the novel to an episode of any average, but entertaining network television cop drama. Although Cristofano was probably going more for the arresting and nuanced equivalent of a Sopranos episode, he doesn’t quite get there. But like a lot of those cop shows, The Girl She Used to Be is good enough to keep following to find out what happens in the end.