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Book Review: Safe In My Arms by Sara Shepard

Image of a digital book cover. A fence with a yellow backpack hanging on it. the title of the book is superimposed over it in a different shade of yellow.

Summary:
Three women whose children attend an elite preschool in coastal California find their lives intertwined when they all receive threatening notes in their children’s backpacks.

Review:
Sara Shepard is most famous for writing Pretty Little Liars, the series the hit tv show is based upon. In Pretty Little Liars the threat is text messages. Here it’s old school notes. Only this time, it’s the moms twisted into secrets and lies.

The three moms are at the center of the book, and I only actually liked one. Andrea is a trans woman who moved to California to be able to transition and live openly, away from her elite and judgmental family. Now, I will note I am a cis woman, and I would like to hear what a trans woman thinks of the representation, but I thought Andrea was written very well. I appreciated the realism of having to deal with some transphobia in her family but also being warmly welcomed by the other two women – both as a friend and as a woman. The author’s note at the end makes it clear she sought out a sensitivity reader for Andrea, and I could tell. If only the same efforts had been made for the other two women….

Lauren is struggling with postpartum rage (a symptom tied to postpartum depression). I just felt she was quite two-dimensional, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her.

Ronnie is a topless maid, formerly a stripper, who moved here from Pennsylvania with her daughter. It at first appears she did so to get away from an abusive man. I can’t talk about Ronnie without revealing a slight spoiler (it’s revealed about 1/3 of the way into the book), so be warned.

Ronnie’s “daughter” is actually her niece. Her sister was in a relationship with an abusive man and was addicted to something. It’s vaguely explained as drugs. Ronnie, after a violent fight with her sister’s significant other that ends with her discovering her sister wounded on the floor, takes the baby and runs with her. She never follows up to see if her sister is ok. No, no, she just steals her daughter, changes her daughter’s name, and decides her daughter is better off with her anyway. I just simply could not empathize with the child abductor here. Ronnie had other options to help her niece. She had never even tried anything else (beyond living with her sister to “protect” her). I’m ok with a book featuring a less than ideal character. I’m not ok with the whole tone of the book being that I should empathize with her or that what she did was a mistake.

Because that’s the thing. The book kind of wraps up with the message that all moms make mistakes and it’s ok to not be perfect. I mean, sure, within reason. But there’s it’s ok to not be perfect and then there’s you’re only in the mom club because you stole someone else’s child.

Also as someone who cares about addiction and recovery, I found the depiction of Ronnie’s sister Vanessa to be heartless. She isn’t given the same chance and possibility to recover and change and learn from her mistakes as the other mom’s. In fact, the whole “moms don’t have to be perfect” scene features the moms describing all the reasons their children make them drink alcohol. The hypocrisy of this scene sickened me.

Contemporary books are approaching the pandemic in a variety of ways. This one chose to set the story “post-pandemic.” I’m fine with that optimistic choice, and I understand why it was made. But the strange thing is it mostly seems to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic as purely economic – there’s a lot of talk about economic challenges from when we all stayed home but almost zero mention of anything else. I think there was one mention of face masks? This is set in California. There was way more impact than just economic. It rubbed me the wrong way how it made it out to be all about economic issues, and also how things just immediately snapped back to normal. If one wants a normal contemporary book, fine, just don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all then. Include an author’s note that this is for escapism and move on. Don’t acknowledge it as an economic downturn like 2008 and nothing much else…..

Beyond this, the actual main issue going on at the school was interesting and twisty. I had my suspicions early on, but I still enjoyed the twists. What really saved the book for me, though, was Andrea. We need more positive trans rep in psychological thrillers, and Andrea was very well-done.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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