Well, it's been a pretty crummy week, and I can't say I feel much like writing a book review today, but here I am anyway. The good folks at Library Thing and Random House sent me a copy of Have You Found Her to review through the Early Reviewer program. Despite my reluctance to write much of anything this week, this book definitely deserves to be reviewed before I've begun to forget it's finer points. So here it goes...
In Have You Found Her, Janice Erlbaum has written a fine a memoir with all the trappings of a novel. As a kid, Erlbaum fled her home only to find herself in the New York City shelter system. In her mid-thirties, having reconciled with her parents and attained some measure of success in her life, she decides it is time to return to the shelter where she once resided to volunteer and give back to the place that helped her when she most needed it.
While volunteering, Janice meets Sam, an abused, drug-addicted, and very troubled teenager trying to turn her life around. She sees something of herself in Sam and falls in love with the girl and what she has the potential to do for Sam. As their relationship deepens and Sam's health takes a turn for the worse, Janice learns that Sam is even more disturbed than she could have imagined.
Erlbaum's memoir is compulsively readable. She honestly confronts the dilemmas of volunteering head on. Do we volunteer and try to help merely for the sake of being altruistic? Or do we volunteer to give ourselves that good feeling that comes from having sacrificed of ourselves for the good of others? Erlbaum confronts this and many other questions as she explores her relationship with Sam and both the good and bad things it brings out in her own character. While it's hard to watch Erlbaum struggle through a year of being a de facto mother to a severely troubled girl, it's easy to see why she fell in love with Sam and her very mixed feelings about feeling responsible for a girl who is so smart and so lovable but also so tremendously damaged.
This memoir reads similarly to a novel. It's full of interesting and lovable "characters" from Janice and Sam to Janice's ever-supportive partner Bill to Sam's other "moms" Maria and Jodi. It has several very unexpected "plot twists" and runs the full gamut of emotions. Though this memoir has many things to recommend it, I most appreciated Erlbaum's efforts to present an honest account of her year with Sam. She doesn't skirt the big issues and doesn't try to make herself look like some sort of perfect volunteer faultlessly picking up the downtrodden youth of New York City. Instead, she reflects on a very real and very difficult experience and the way she actually reacted to it at the time as well as how she felt about it in retrospect. It's this honesty and self-awareness that makes Have You Found Her really stand out.
Read another review at Booking Mama.