Be Safe I Love You

A Novel

LIST PRICE $18.99

About The Book

This widely acclaimed novel about a female soldier who returns from Iraq haunted by a tragic mistake is “beautifully written…suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments” (Miami Herald) and was named one of the 5 Best in Modern War Fiction by The Sunday Telegraph.

Before she enlisted, classically-trained singer Lauren Clay had been accepted to a prestigious music conservatory, but her family’s financial demands—worsened by her parents’ divorce and her father’s declining mental health—pushed her in another direction. Joining the army allowed Lauren to provide for her family—especially her younger brother Danny, whose quirky, heartfelt letters to her overseas are signed, be safe, I love you.

When she arrives home unexpectedly, it’s clear to her friends and family that something is profoundly wrong with Lauren. But her father is so happy to have her home that he ignores her odd behavior, as well as the repeated phone calls from an army psychologist. Things seem better when Lauren offers to take Danny on a trip to visit their mother upstate, but instead, she guides them into the glacial woods of Canada on a quest to visit the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, the site of an oil field that has become her strange obsession. What happens there will change Sergeant Lauren Clay’s family forever, as she must finally face what she saw, and did, in Iraq.

Be Safe I Love You is “a rare, illuminating glimpse into the distinctive experience and psyche of a female vet” (Boston Globe); “a riveting suspense story and a frank portrayal of war’s psychic damage” (Ms. Magazine); and “a painful exploration of the devastation wrought by combat even when the person returns from war without a scratch…this book is a reminder that art and love are all that can keep us from despair” (The New York Times Book Review).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Be Safe I Love You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Returning to her upstate New York hometown after serving in Iraq, Lauren Clay is haunted by emotional battle scars and has trouble adjusting to civilian life. She struggles to reconnect with family and friends before setting out with her younger brother on a winter road trip to visit Canada’s remote wilderness—a journey that will determine her future, for better or for worse. Be Safe I Love You is a poignant, impassioned novel about the devastating effects of war, both on the front lines and at home.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. “She was back but didn’t feel so far away from Iraq,” admits Lauren (page 9). How does she see her family and friends in a new light since returning from the war zone? How do they, in turn, view her? Why are they so quick to believe that Lauren is fine or, in Jack’s case, that he can help her simply by offering snacks and a willing ear?
 
2. How do Lauren’s roles as soldier and caregiver become intertwined? Why does she find it so difficult to relinquish her position as a commanding officer when she returns to civilian life?
 
3. Lauren confides in Holly that it seems as if Jack Clay was “replaced by an imposter” while she was gone (page 75). Why isn’t she happier to see her father working and taking care of Danny? How does his recovery impact not only her post-military plans but also her identity as her brother’s surrogate parent?
 
4. What is your opinion of Jack and Meg Clay as parents? Meg says to Lauren that although she loved her and Danny, “Sometimes leaving makes the most sense, does the least damage. Sometimes it’s the better option” (page 170). Do you agree with Meg’s reasoning about why she left? Why or why not?
 
5. For two weeks after Lauren received an acceptance from Curtis, she felt as if “she could do anything before the first foreclosure notices came in the mail” (page 304). What, if anything, might she have done other than join the military? What would you have done if you were in her situation?
 
6. Of the soldiers in her unit, why was it Daryl with whom Lauren developed a close friendship? “Daryl got it,” she claims, while Shane “she wasn’t so sure about” (page 10). When she compares Shane to Daryl, why does Shane come up lacking?
 
7. Why does Lauren have such conflicted feelings for Shane? Why did she stop communicating with him while she was in Iraq and yet seek him out as soon as she arrived home? Discuss the divergent paths each one took and their motivations for doing so—Lauren joining the military and Shane attending college. How does each one view the other’s decision?
 
8. Lauren found comfort in the church building during the time she was training with Troy. How does she view the Stations of the Cross (artistic depictions of Christ’s final hours) differently since returning from Iraq? Share your thoughts on her religious views, including why she believes “battlefield baptism” (page 56) was among the worst things she saw while in Iraq.
 
9. Most of the townspeople’s perception of Troy differs from reality. In what ways is he a role model to Lauren and the parental figure she didn’t have? After her return, why does Lauren refuse when Troy or others ask her to sing?
 
10. When Danny was a child, Lauren read him Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Why is Danny so fascinated by this fairy tale? How do the events in The Snow Queen parallel what takes place in his and Lauren’s own lives?
 
11. Despite the fact that Jack is adequately caring for Danny, why does Lauren proceed with her plan to take her brother away from Watertown? Is she doing it more for Danny, as she claims, or for herself?
 
12. Why does Lauren believe she was “kept in a woman’s prison” (page 276) while serving in the military? How does she equate it with the years she spent keeping house and caring for her father and Danny? Why is Lauren upset when Danny tells her that their father’s crippling depression was alleviated in a matter of weeks with medication?
 
13. How does the author build and sustain suspense throughout the story? Were you surprised when the truth was revealed about Daryl? Why or why not? Looking back, what clues were there along the way?
 
14. Be Safe I Love You illuminates the personal cost of war to each individual soldier and to their families. In addition, how does the novel illustrate the broader issues associated with war, including politics and corporate interests?
 
15. Do you agree with the author that there is a cultural tendency to romanticize war? Why or why not? When Lauren confides in Troy that she did terrible things, he says to her, “Of course you did. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise” (page 321). Why does he offer her this advice?   
 

A Conversation with Cara Hoffman 

Q: What prompted you to write a war-themed novel? Was it something you were considering for some time, or was there a particular moment when you realized it was a topic you wanted to explore?  


A: We live with war. The United States has permanent military bases throughout the world. The foundation of our culture is exploitation and conquest. There are many books written about battles but there are few written about how deeply enmeshed our personal lives, our livelihoods, our pleasures, and entertainments are with war. And very few novels deal with what life is really like for families of returning soldiers.

Q: Why did you opt to have the central character be a female soldier? What particular challenges do female soldiers face?  

A: The main challenge that women in the military now face is constant risk of sexual assault by the people they are serving with. It’s something I didn’t write about in Be Safe I Love You but it would be wrong not to mention here. Rape in the military is at epidemic proportions. Apart from that, women have different issues when they return home—particularly if they are parents and expected to be nurturing and to be caregivers for an entire family, women face humiliating kinds of gender-based discrimination at war and at home.

Q: There are so many vivid details in the story about a soldier’s life in and out of uniform, from Lauren’s thoughts on battlefield religion to the emotions she experiences after she returns home. What research did you do for Be Safe I Love You?  

A: I interviewed veterans. And my brother was a combat veteran who did two tours of duty and worked as a military contractor. I’ve spent a good amount of time around military people since I was a child and have a good idea of what that culture is like. The character of PJ was inspired by a close family friend who was a Vietnam vet and civil rights activist.

Q: Authors are often asked if they share similarities with their novel’s protagonist, how do you feel about this common trend in linking authors’ personal lives with their work?  

A: I think there’s been a serious cultural shift in the way people read and receive fiction influenced first by the rise of the memoir as a genre, and second by forms of visual media and social media which normalized self exposure. I write fiction, not memoir. So I am more interested in talking about language and craft and ideas than I am about my personal life. The characters in my novels, like the characters in all novels, are the result of research, imagination, and experience. Any personal similarities I have with the characters are pretty generic. I come from upstate, from an Irish catholic family, have an older brother who is a soldier and a younger brother who is a brainy sort of guy. But my experience of loving them, of caring for them is universal. Readers might link my experiences with the Danny character but that would be a mistake. In many ways, we’re all Danny. Living in a military culture and coping one way or another with the fallout of things soldiers have done; the burdens they’ve taken on under the guise of protecting us, the way they shape us and the world we live in. I guess my answer to this question is Be Safe I Love You is fiction. And I’d like to keep my personal life private. But I will say that anyone looking for clues about where my life and upbringing intersect with the novel need look no farther than Troy, the Patricks or the post-industrial towns of upstate New York.

Q: But what about Lauren? In the novel Lauren trains as a classical singer. Is this a talent you share with her? A: Yes. I trained as a vocalist and sang and performed classical music when I was young, often with my step-brother who was a classical concert pianist and accompanist. I went to juried competitions and performed pieces from operas. I still sing sacred music with a choir and enjoy the music my son composes. Had I stayed in school I’d likely have become a musician like him instead of a novelist.

Q: What made Watertown, New York, the ideal setting for Be Safe I Love You?  

A: There is a military base in Watertown, it has one of the highest suicide rates in New York State, and it’s close to Canada. In many ways it’s the quintessential upstate town.

Q: You note that Be Safe I Love You is “an homage” to Louis Ferdinand Celine and his work, in particular his autobiographical novel Journey to the End of the Night. What other books and authors have influenced or made a lasting impression on you?  

A: That would be a long list! And most of the people on it would be French. Celine changed the way people read. He changed our whole conception of narrative. The work is visceral and immediate in a way that I think is unsurpassed. I have read passages from Death on the Installment Plan that made me laugh so hard I was crying and at the same time made me feel like throwing up. He’s a genius. I also love Jean Genet, Flaubert, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginie Despentes, Sartre, Camus. I love Orwell—as folks who’ve read So Much Pretty know. And then the Americans: Paul Bowles, Joan Didion, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor. It may sound strange but I’ve read with total pleasure everything by Phillip K. Dick—including the first 500 pages of the Exegesis which is just a lunatic work. I love PKD. Because his books are about Gnostic philosophy and identity and fighting against a false authoritarian world—but the stories are about people living on Mars or spying on themselves from inside disguises. I’ve been deeply affected by David Wojnarowicz’s work, particularly the waterfront journals and Close to the Knives. It resonates with me the same way that Journey does and in my view it’s a perfect book. I come back to it over and over again. It’s a source of strength and inspiration, raw and real and filled with beauty and rage. When I read it I feel awed and excited, and very sad that he didn’t survive the plague.

Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews that there is a tendency toward “romanticizing war as a thing that gives life meaning, war as inevitability.” Do you see that changing with novels about the Iraq war that have been published recently? Why was it important to you not to take that direction with Be Safe I Love You?  

A: I have no patience for the narcissism of war narratives. People think murder adds gravitas and mystery to their work. But nothing is more superficial, more under-developed or unenlightened than violence and killing. There are ways to write intelligently about war and violence, ways that demystify the mundane causes and get somewhere more interesting and significant, but that kind of work is rarely undertaken. Fetishizing violence and killing, studying battles and weapons, getting a vicarious rush from reading about or seeing brutality is literally the definition of a perversion. It’s an ignorant practice. The fact that any of it carries weight in our culture is laughable. War is state sanctioned murder. There’s nothing lower than that. It is the conscious misdirection and exploitation of men’s bodies and of hyper masculinity in order to steal and profit from others’ misery. I don’t see that changing in books like The Yellow Birds; the language is utterly lovely but the story is still one of men suffering because of the suffering they’ve inflicted. And it still reinforces the dominant paradigm. It’s time to do something wholly new. Helen Benedict’s The Sand Queen was an inspiration and a good start toward capturing the big picture. David Finkel’s nonfiction The Good Soldier is brilliant. But the longer we continue to tell epic tales of Cowboys and Indians the longer we’ll remain in a kind of cultural infancy. It’s thumb sucking, plain and simple.

The short answer to your question is I couldn’t take the direction of romanticizing war because I don’t write propaganda for the government. Poverty and propaganda are what make kids strap on suicide vests, join the Taliban, or the IRA or the RUC, help destroy their neighbors with machete,s or leave their jobs at the Dairy Queen and travel thousands of miles to dump white phosphorus on an entire town. I won’t have any part of that propaganda. I won’t pretend for a minute that there’s any meaning at all in that kind of brutality. This is the main way in which the book is an homage to Celine, who understood these things as a soldier and as an anarchist.

Q: “Home is not always the safest place for a returning warrior,” you write in Be Safe I Love You. What strides have been made in recent decades to support soldiers when they return from war? What still needs to be done?  

A: People can make donations to the Service Women’s Action Network, which works to end sex discrimination and reform veterans’ services.

The “strides” that have been made to support soldiers clearly have to do with transport and medical support in the field. The prosthetics and physical rehabilitation people can get today are amazing. More soldiers are surviving combat than before because of it. But the suicide rate for returning soldiers is high. The fact is, these folks often end up dead or homeless or abusing or killing people close to them after returning from combat. Talking about what should be done once people return is really talking around the problem. Obviously creating a society where military intervention is not the norm is the goal. But gender exploitation of men to commit violence is not going to change any time soon. So it’s a good question. What do you do once you’ve trained a person to murder and then sent them out to experience extreme trauma? What do you do to help those people? I don’t know.

Q: What would you most like readers to take away from Be Safe I Love You?  

A: An understanding of how important fraternity is, actual brotherhood, siblinghood, mutual aid, and solidarity—not false brotherhood created by the trauma of war. The book is about how relationships based on hierarchies are detrimental. And how the creative force is life saving. It’s about how history and the worship of patriarchal narratives threaten our future. It’s about the power of autonomy and equality, and the terrible things you have to face about the world in order to get that power. It’s about love.

Q: Be Safe I Love You is your second novel, after So Much Pretty, the story of a reporter who investigates the death of a young woman in a small town. What is your next novel about? Does it share any themes or other similarities with your first two books?  

A: My third novel is about a homeless teenage girl living in Athens, Greece in the late 80s and early 90s who gets involved in some illegal activities. Just as in So Much Pretty and Be Safe it’s an examination of institutional violence—and how we cope with and transcend it. There’s a Camus quote that I think sums it up nicely. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Enhance Your Book Club

Pair your reading of Be Safe I Love You with Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, a book that had a profound influence on Cara Hoffman.
 
Suicide is now the leading cause of death for US service members and veterans, far outstripping combat related deaths. Please consider making a donation to the Service Women’s Action Network to help end sex discrimination, reform veterans’ services and ensure high quality health care and benefits for women veterans and their families. Go to servicewomen.org or write to: Service Women's Action Network 220 E. 23rd Street, Suite 509 New York, NY 10010
 
Arvo Part is Lauren’s favorite composer. Listen to his music while reading Be Safe I Love You.
 
Lauren’s favorite poem is “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. Incorporate a reading of the verse into your discussion of Be Safe I Love You.
 
Visit CaraHoffman.com to learn more about the author and her books.

About The Author

(c) Constance Faulk

Cara Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed novels So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You, and now, Running. She lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 2015)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451641325

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Raves and Reviews

“A finely tuned piece of fiction . . . Be Safe I Love You is a painful exploration of the devastation wrought by combat even when the person returns from war without a scratch. The story—written with such lucid detail it's hard to believe the main character is an invention—suggests the damage starts long before the soldier reports for duty. . . . In crystalline language that conveys both the desolation of the Iraqi desert and the north country of New York State . . . this book is a reminder that art and love are all that can keep us from despair.”

– Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times Book Review

“In so many ways, we still think of warfare and soldiering as male endeavors. The plight of the female soldier remains largely out of view — in print media, on television news, even in fiction and film. Through Lauren, Cara Hoffman’s thoroughly researched and carefully crafted heroine, Be Safe I Love You illuminates the distaff side of military service and the ways that life in uniform are at once different and, at times, uncannily similar for men and women. Toward the end of this fine novel, Lauren finds a new life for herself based on her old passions, but Hoffman doesn’t give us the sense that she’s fully healed. Rather, she is, in her own way, soldiering on, a woman forever changed. . . . ‘She knew now that the difference between never and always was small,’ Hoffman writes. ‘Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of safety glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create.’”

– The Washington Post

“Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty . . . [Be Safe I Love You] is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions (the working class being more directly affected by American warfare than anyone else). . . . A terrific story, suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it’s also a call to action, a heartfelt demand for us to pay closer attention to the costly fallout of violence.”

– Miami Herald

“For those of us never deployed into active duty, it is difficult to fathom the adrenaline-fueled combination of terror and anger that combat instills. We only see the aftermath, when soldiers return home, forever changed, trying to connect with a world where everyone seems flawed and fragile and uncomprehending. . . . In prose that is both powerful and poetic, Hoffman (So Much Pretty) paints a searing portrait of PTSD and the disconnect of the returning vet amid the well-meaning but clueless. . . . Even more compelling is the novel’s rare, illuminating glimpse into the distinctive experience and psyche of a female vet. Hoffman challenges us to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it must be to reconcile the innate protective instincts of the caregiver with a culture of violence and orders to kill. Yet she does that beautifully and poignantly, without destroying our hope for redemption and healing.”

– The Boston Globe

“It would be a mistake to understand Be Safe, I Love You only as a war novel. This is also a book about broken families and class and the impossible choices the working poor are too often forced to make. . . . Deeply moving and gorgeously written — raw in some places, tender in others. Lauren’s vulnerability and torment are elegantly rendered.”

– Roxane Gay for Buzzfeed

“Hoffman dazzled me (and many others) with her 2011 So Much Pretty . . . Highly recommend.”

– Washingtonian.com

“There are a lot of reasons I loved Be Safe I Love You: the complex main character of Lauren, the gorgeous descriptions, the thread of mystery weaving deftly through the story. But most of all I loved it because it’s a brutal and harsh look at the difficulties of coming home after war, of trying to fit back into an old life, a mold, when you don’t fit into your own skin. It’s about losing yourself and finding yourself all over again. It is, quite simply, luminous.”

– Bookriot.com

“Tense and stunning . . . exactly what a war novel should be: not a story about battles and guns and machismo, but a tale of refreshing honesty about the harm war does to us all, women, men and children alike, not only in battle, but at home.”

– Helen Benedict, The Guardian (UK)

“A riveting suspense story and a frank portrayal of war’s psychic damage.”

– Ms. magazine

“Hoffman’s second novel is a fierce and nuanced tribute to women warriors.”

– BBC, 10 Best Books for Spring

“A searing, unforgettable, and beautifully written tale about the corrosive effects of war on the psyche, a contemporary version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with a female protagonist.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

“In this story about a female soldier returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Hoffman (So Much Pretty, 2011) does many things well, including her depictions of sibling dynamics, setting (both upstate New York and Iraq), and the working-class mind-set. But what she does best of all is to capture the symptoms and fallout of PTSD. . . . Hoffman describes in visceral prose the disorientation, guilt, and shame of returning war vets. A page-turner that also offers impassioned social critique.”

– Booklist

“Excellent . . . describes the troubled homecoming of U.S. Army Sergeant Lauren Clay to Watertown, N.Y., from a tour of duty in Iraq. . . . Hoffman fills her tight narrative with an ominous sense of imminent violence. . . . [a] haunting page turner.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Riveting. Be Safe I Love You is haunting and rare: the story of a young female soldier returning home, torn between love and rage, unable to recognize who she once was. In lyrical, assured prose, Hoffman probes the ravages of war on the survivors, the power of forgetting, the defiance of love, and the possibility of forgiveness. Be Safe I Love You will make your heart race, and then break it.”

– Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning

“A gorgeously written, heart-wrenching novel that explores the damage inflicted upon a veteran of the Iraq war, and the varieties of love that ultimately sustain her. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You is a tour-de-force of literary suspense by a brilliant, fearless writer — simply the best book I’ve read in ages.”

– Elizabeth Hand, award-winning author of Available Dark and Generation Loss

Be Safe I Love You isn’t just a beautiful and unsparing tale of a soldier’s return from the Iraq War, though it is certainly that. It is a reckoning with the moral disaster of that conflict, one that no amount of news and reporting can give us because it requires more than facts. It requires the kind of imaginative transformation Cara Hoffman has accomplished here, turning the story of one young woman’s journey from working poverty to war and home again into a song of lament for a country that has lost its way.”

– Adam Haslett, author of Union Atlantic, and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-nominated You Are Not a Stranger Here

“Cara Hoffman gets it. She gets what war does to soldiers, inside and out, and she gets what they must face when they come home from war. Lauren Clay is a character readers won’t forget: determined, admirable, and so loving that even as she goes to hell and back, we are ready to go with her. A riveting novel full of compassion for veterans and those who love them.”

– Helen Benedict, author of Sand Queen and The Lonely Soldier

“It’s good to know that a female protagonist doesn’t have to be 'nice' in order to be compelling . . . In Be Safe I Love You, Hoffman pulls us in brilliantly."

– Bookpage.com

Be Safe I Love You is an important step into new territory that hopefully will blaze a trail for other writers to follow.”

– Bookreporter.com

“Every once in awhile a book comes around that takes my breath away. One whose beauty knocks me off my feet, whose gorgeousness I simply can’t put into words. Today, that book is Be Safe I Love You . . . [Hoffman’s] words pack punches at the same time they’re soft and comforting; her narrative ability is remarkable, and readers will find themselves lost in the world she creates.”

– SKrishnasbooks.com

“Riveting. Be Safe I Love You is haunting and rare: the story of a young female soldier returning home, torn between love and rage, unable to recognize who she once was. In lyrical, assured prose, Hoffman probes the ravages of war on the survivors, the power of forgetting, the defiance of love, and the possibility of forgiveness. Be Safe I Love You will make your heart race, and then break it.”

– Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning

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