The End of Innocence

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 6, 2006

THE SLOW MOON

A Novel

By Elizabeth Cox

Random House. 300 pp. $23.95

Any novel that begins with the rape and beating of a 14-year- old girl will be haunted by the ghost of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones . But in the supernatural world of book marketing, that's a curse most publishers would die for. The Slow Moon , a new novel by Elizabeth Cox, contains several significant differences from Sebold's phenomenal 2002 bestseller (for one, there's no spectral narrator), but its insight into the emotional turmoil of teens and their parents in the wake of a terrifying crime should entrance a similar audience.

The story opens on the night that Sophie Chabot, a freshman new to South Pittsburgh, Tenn., and Crow Davenport, her wealthy 16-year-old boyfriend, decide to have sex for the first time. After they sneak away from a wild party at a friend's house and lie down in the woods, Crow realizes that he has left the condom in his car. During the 20 minutes it takes him to sneak back and return, Sophie is gang-raped and beaten unconscious. At the sight of her body, in a moment of panic that will dismay him throughout the novel, Crow runs away, convinced he'll be held responsible if he calls for help.

This gripping first scene pulls us through shifting emotions of romance, excitement, terror and dread. But what's more remarkable is that events over the following months are equally enthralling, even though Cox closes all the natural avenues of suspense: We know from the start that Crow isn't one of the culprits, the police search for Sophie's real assailants never comes into focus, and even the criminal trial breezes by in a few pages. But as Sophie recovers in the hospital, unable to recall anything about her attack, bottled-up tensions and secrets in this small town begin to ferment into an explosive mixture.

I know this sounds a bit overwrought, but except for a few dashes of melodrama ("Something monstrous was moving beneath the skin of the town"), Cox writes in a lyrical voice that gently explains the smothered anguish of these people's lives. She's most insightful when she moves through Crow's buddies, one by one, laying bare their conflicted souls: their desperation to belong, to maintain their parents' love, to score. She catches the animal energy of "these eager boys who thought they were, but were not yet, men." It's a painful process, for the boys and the people around them. "They didn't want to think about the price it took to be men," Cox writes, "wanting instead to be the blaze, the rage, the danger they thought were men."

Bobby, the son of a local judge, sports the charming confidence no girl can resist, even though there's something unsettling about him -- that blink-of-the-eye vacillation between aggression and flattery. If you're the parent of a teenage girl, you need to know about Bobby; your daughter already does. Meanwhile, Lester, the brainiac in the group, is torn between his basic decency and that nagging thirst for his friends' respect, which, unfortunately, is earned by excessive drinking and acquiring good-looking girls.

But that points to a peculiar failure in The Slow Moon : The good-looking girl at the center of this story is eclipsed by the characters around her. Sophie often doesn't seem like someone who's been gang-raped and beaten; she seems more like a girl who's had her bike stolen. For better or worse, the extraordinary openness about sexual trauma over the past few decades has given most of us some sense of the scars left by such abuse and the agonizing path to recovery for those who survive. But Sophie never shows sufficient evidence of the struggle such an ordeal would entail. Her doctor drops little fortune cookies of advice: "He says I need to let myself remember before I can forget." And she adopts a sweet attitude no one could fault: "Each day she rose with a singularity of purpose: to find some small brightness in the day, just one moment, so that she could begin to reenter the world." But there simply isn't enough psychological complexity here to make her convincing. An erotic epiphany in the woods toward the end of the novel -- "The moon was taking off its clothes, making a deal with her" -- sounds particularly false (although it's still better than the ghost-girl sex scene that mars the end of The Lovely Bones ).

Cox sees deeper when she looks away from Sophie to the fragile structures of desire and deceit in the community, which for too many of us will be distressingly familiar. Amid disturbing stories in the news, such as the rape case involving Duke University lacrosse players, The Slow Moon is all the more relevant and necessary, a careful map of the fissures that run through seemingly well-built families. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company