Debut, taunt

Sarah Walters, the hapless Southern debutante-turned-city girl in San Francisco writer Katie Crouch’s first novel, is “a normal human person.” Drunkenly defending herself to one of many cruel boyfriends, she admits, “There are lots of parts of me that aren’t pretty.” His response? “That doesn’t mean I want to see them.”

Instead of catching the first bus out of Codependence, Sarah pops some pills and fantasizes marriage. “I’ll be good and fix everything,” she thinks. Such raw-boned desperation recurs throughout Girls in Trucks, painting a bleak if believable portrait of women who failed to break out of the box they were born into. The cover is deceptively fluffy: a young woman with a pretty back pads barefoot along a dirt road in a polka-dot dress. But if you come in expecting mint juleps and orgasmic high jinks, prepare to be slapped upside the head.

The story opens with a mocking description of Charleston, S.C., society life, its code of conduct set in stone by the outmoded but venerable Camellia Society: an organization of mothers whose primary purpose is to “prepare their daughters for marriage to a decent man.” Decent means wealthy, handsome and mannerly—not one of those country boys in trucks.

Sarah’s the sharp-tongued, unsparing narrator, giving us the lowdown on a cast of characters that includes her fellow Camellias (pretty Bitsy, wild Charlotte, fat Annie), her disturbingly perfect sister and her benign yet deluded parents. Sarah’s wry adolescent voice carries us through the first third of the book, right up to the moment before she loses her virginity—to one of those country boys in trucks.

Her move “up North” for college signals the first big narrative shift. Suddenly we’re in distant third person, watching Sarah (referred to generically as “the girl”) learn to drink, smoke pot, sleep around and tolerate the cold. In the next chapter, we’re back in first person, and Sarah has moved to New York City with Charlotte. From here, Crouch continues experimenting with different points of view, slipping into the lives of Sarah’s equally disconsolate friends. Sarah’s story remains the continuous thread, but these “Camellia anecdotes” drive Girls in Trucks through the mire of conventional chick lit. The Camellias are bound to each other by a malicious allegiance. Like good Southern girls, they’ve learned to observe each other’s weaknesses and exploit them, “between compliments drizzled in honey.” At a breaking point near the end of the novel, as they throw well-aimed verbal darts at one another in a dressing room, Sarah wonders, “Where had we learned this? Who had taught us to be so awful to ourselves?”

It’s a good question, and one never fully answered. Crouch is most authentic—and tiresome—in her ruthless descriptions of obsessive relationships and bad sex, but gets stuck in her characters’ self-loathing. After compromising herself for a boyfriend who likes it rough (as in bashed nose and bloody sheets), Sarah states matter-of-factly, “Being unfaithful to yourself is not as hard as you’d think.” She sees through her own desperation, but only enough to glimpse what she’s up against: “Sex was our only connection, and sometimes, when we were in the thick of it, I would go to that place where one is present yet far off, and an image would drift through my mind of an old stone wall—the same one every time—covered in moss, impenetrable.”

Sarah’s unceasing quest for romantic fulfillment (read: survival) takes her into the arms of a married man, to a burnout “backup” lover in Peru and finally home to Charleston, where Mr. Nice Guy is waiting with his pickup, undeterred by her emotional baggage. In an unconvincing flash of Zen, she thinks, “Right now, in this moment, we have love.” For a normal human person, maybe that’s enough.