MARILOU IS EVERYWHERE
By Sarah Elaine Smith
“I had only ever been myself, and found it lacking,” declares 14-year-old Cindy, the loner narrator of “Marilou Is Everywhere,” the strange and powerful debut novel by Sarah Elaine Smith. Cindy lives in a crumbling house in rural Pennsylvania with her two older brothers, “basically feral,” with a mother who comes and goes. The three are frequently hungry and powerless, both figuratively (they’re just kids) and literally (the electricity bill hasn’t been paid).
The book begins with a mystery: One summer, a popular teenager named Jude Vanderjohn goes missing. Her mother, Bernadette, an alcoholic former back-to-the-lander with a declining memory, only half-grasps that her daughter is gone. Jude has friends and prospects — everything Cindy does not. And yet, as different as their worlds seem to Cindy, owing to chance, to luck, they actually are not so dissimilar: Both of their fathers are absent; both of their mothers demonstrate their love imperfectly.
Cindy herself is an odd, outcast narrator who reads catalogs (they’re what she can get her hands on) and observes relentlessly, the way only a loner does. She has a keen eye for both the weird (she notes her brother’s hands are yellow “like hard cheese”; a voice on TV “sounded like it lived in a lemon”) and the lovely (she imagines “the abandoning tilt of a kiss”). Jude and Cindy’s brother Virgil “had been quite the couple” years ago, when he was a senior and she was 14. They called themselves Marilou and Cletus; they were “adorable” together.
When Jude disappears, Virgil takes it upon himself to check on Jude’s disoriented mother, who “was not especially befriended in the community.” After a day of drinking, Bernadette by sundown grows confused and fearful. At first Cindy tags along, doing what she can to help, mostly by pouring out Bernadette’s bottles of gin. Things get increasingly bizarre from there: Bernadette mistakes Cindy for Jude, and Cindy lets her, beginning to dress and pose as the missing girl. “I stood in the place where Jude was supposed to be,” she thinks. “And this, I thought, was a kindness.”