There’s something not right about the Evans women, the protagonists of Heather Young’s troubling debut novel; her title The Lost Girls is apt.
The book alternates between chapters narrated by the elderly Lucy Evans, and a semi-omniscient narrator whose focus is Justine, Lucy’s rootless and timid grandniece, who inherits her Minnesota home. The tale begins during the Depression, when Lucy, her sisters Lilith and Emily, and their parents conduct their annual retreat to this same house, then a vacation home by a lake. We know that something’s wrong with this bunch from the start, and as the summer wears on the wrongness curdles, then erupts into horror.
Much of what’s wrong with the generations of Evans women begins with the men in—and out of—their lives. We start with the sisters’ dad, Thomas. They and their mother Eleanor are afraid of him. He is a bit authoritarian, but that trait seems mediated by a gentleness and keen intelligence. He even takes Lucy fishing one morning. They have a good time. What’s there to fear? Also, why is Eleanor so suffocatingly protective of 6-year-old Emily? Why are Lucy and Lilith, who share an intense bond, so mean to the little girl?
Then there’s Justine, abandoned by her husband and left to raise their two daughters in San Diego. Terrified of loneliness, she takes up with then tries to leave Patrick, a man who can only be called a successful sociopath. We meet Justine’s ghastly and embittered mother, Maurie, who flitted from man to man like a bedraggled moth when Justine was a child and deprived her of anything like stability. Both Patrick and Maurie, daughter of Lilith, manage to track Justine down in Minnesota in the middle of winter. The results are what you’d expect.
Though a veteran of a few writing seminars and workshops, Young is a lawyer, one of a line who have become writers of fiction. What many of these attorney/writers share is a fondness for the detail that seems unimportant at first but then becomes crucial and bits of evidence that lead to an irrefutable conclusion. Young’s summation: the patriarchy hurts women and girls, but it hurts men and boys just as much. This might not be news, but in Young’s hands it feels startling and essential.