If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go is one of those stories that leaves you with the feeling of having sand between your toes, but cold sand, at the end of the holiday, when your memories of the beach are starting to fade. So vivid is Judy Chicurel’s depiction of life along the once-glamorous but now decaying Elephant Beach that you can almost taste the cheap booze, smell the chain-smoked cigarettes, and suffer the disappointments felt by so many of those at the heart of the book.
It’s 1972, America is bitterly divided by the Vietnam War, and the women left behind are by no means liberated. Religion and racism hold considerable sway, and the world is a very small place. In this crumbling, forgotten Long Island town – which is fictional, but somewhere that I could imagine well enough from having visited places of similar lost glory in this country, or Coney Island in the States – life holds little hope. Jobs are scarce and unenjoyable, while prospects for all but the lucky few are remote, and days are passed in a haze of smoke, alcohol, drugs and cheap thrills.
Through the eyes of Katie, an idealistic 18-year-old at the heart of a friendship group comprised of addicts, down-and-outs and would-be teenage parents, we pass a summer on Elephant Beach. Katie, as she is constantly reminded by her well-meaning but underwritten mother, is better than this; she well knows she should not be spending her time in the deteriorating ‘Trunk’ part of the town. But she is drawn to it, and drawn to the dramas that unfold against the August heat, from first fumbling sexual experiences to teenage pregnancies, tragedy, loss and escape. In particular, she is drawn to a handsome local boy, recently returned from Vietnam and struggling to fit in, as well as to another veteran, the acerbic, alcoholic and insightful Mitch.
Over the summer, Katie watches her friends – a Catholic girl struggling with her parents’ conventional expectations, a young gay man dreaming of the big city, the cartoonish sisters whose bravado hides their scars – make mistakes and attempt to navigate them. And she herself looks back at how she ended up in this ragbag clique, and for the first time begins to open her eyes to the limitations of her chosen world.
It’s Judy Blume, if her stories didn’t all end happily ever after, or Johnny’s crew from Dirty Dancing, without the talent, or Stand by Me, a few years later. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful… is a coming-of-age tale of teenage love and heartbreak, that brings to life a time and a place, but without whitewashing the challenges of that era or stage of adolescence. It’s heartbreaking, beautifully written, and despite having no real plot, utterly compelling. An impressive debut that will leave you waiting for Chicurel’s next move.
Published on October 30th, If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel is available to buy online here.