“I am too ‘fragmented.’ I am overwhelmed My mind is overwhelmed and for this reason it has begun to crack, or ‘break.'” Such is Betsy Scott’s precarious state of mind as she narrates Louise Wareham’s intense and insightful new novel, Since You Ask, which was recently awarded the James Jones Literary Society First Novel Award. Presented loosely as her conversations with Dr. Keats, her therapist at a mental institution called Fairley, Since You Ask chronicles Betsy’s reckless relationships with a series of older men whose vast emotional neediness is dwarfed by her own. In recounting Betsy’s dynamic and destructive connections, Wareham has crafted a novel that, despite some noticeable flaws, portrays a complicated character and her multifaceted mind with deep empathy.
The daughter of a wealthy corporate lawyer and his trophy wife, Betsy is only fifteen when she meets Beck, who is five years older and in correctional school. They’re opposites, yet he charms her, perhaps more by mere persistence than by personality. Eventually, however, she is seduced by Beck’s boss, Frank Revell, who runs a shady freight company. He picks Betsy up from school in his black Mercedes and takes her to his spacious loft apartment, where they engage in sometimes violent, always emotionally detached sex. Both Beck and Frank claim they are drawn to Betsy’s innocence and delicacy, which by the very nature of the relationships they gradually erode. In turn, Betsy is exceedingly passive as she bounces between Beck and Frank, such that it seems that her only desire is to be ordered around.
Often novels set in institutions or framed as therapy lose much of their mystery as they overexplain the workings of their characters’ minds, making motive and intent all too clear and characters all too self-absorbed. Fortunately, Wareham portrays Betsy with sly subtlety. Only superficially does Betsy question her own actions, desires, or vulnerabilities; perhaps as a teenager she has no sophisticated means of introspection. She blames her weakness on her older brother Raymond, who, she implies, molested her when she was a child. Ray is in prison during Betsy’s adolescence, but she feels his absence strongly and dauntingly. Wareham wisely leaves these incidents between them unrecounted and unexplored, and they loom so much more ominously for being unspoken.
It’s not until the novel’s second half, which recounts her affair with a family friend and her time at Fairley, that Betsy begins to examine her own needs and motives. She recounts for Dr. Keats her relationships with Wayne, her boss at a large charity organization, and Raymond. Wayne initially wants to help Betsy out of her deep depression, but he is soon sucked into her vortex, ensnared with sex and helplessness. Meanwhile, Raymond returns from prison and resumes preying on his ever-impressionable younger sister. He plys her with drugs — first cocaine, then crack, and finally heroin — that effectively dull her desires. Dr. Keats manages to break through her manipulations and allow her some self-reflection, but in the process he unwittingly establishes an equally strong and potentially destructive connection that threatens to crush her when she has to leave the institution.
The trick of Since You Ask — and Wareham’s ultimate mission — is the portrayal of intensely complicated and dynamic relationships in the simplest words possible. Deriving her style from minimalists like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, she writes in coyly detached prose that is direct and unsophisticated, often pairing narrative description with some banal observation, as if to heighten the reality of the story. After Betsy has an outburst at Fairley, Wareham writes, “Vicki comes down [with the medication] and the sun is hot overhead.” Elsewhere, Wareham describes Betsy’s first kiss with Beck: “It was like when leaves start rushing in the trees above you. It was like that, only in my chest.” Wareham intends these sentences to reflect the ardor of adolescence and the intensity of first love, but as Betsy ostensibly narrates the scene to her psychiatrist, Dr. Keats, she exhibits no awareness that retrospection would bring.
Fortunately, as Betsy outgrows her adolescence, the novel gradually outgrows this type of style. Although Wareham does indulge in it throughout the book, she does so with less frequency and with more subtlety. Often she displays a descriptive flourish, as when Betsy disdains her high school: “I didn’t like Houghton. I didn’t like the girls with their fancy clothes and the boys who made jokes about blowjobs. I didn’t like Houghton parties, twenty of us in an apartment uptown, girls locking themselves in the bathroom, seniors getting drunk with their hair falling in their eyes.” Passages like this one evoke Betsy’s adolescence much more effectively and dramatically than any of her more affected passages.
Even though her words sometimes falter, Wareham still manages to evoke the ever-widening gulf in Betsy’s mind between how she feels and how she thinks she should feel. As a result, a declaration like “I will never have a good life” possesses terrible gravity, while Betsy’s observation that she is “living with the truth of myself” reveals not just how much hell she has endured, but also the modicum of self-knowledge she has gleaned from her experiences. This newfound awareness is not enough to protect her from the world, but it’s all she has.