The Girl She Used to Be
By: David Cristofano
Published date: 2009
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
Hero: Jonathan Bovaro
Heroine: Melody Grace McCartney
So, this is not a traditional romance. It’s written by a man, is about a helpless girl who only becomes un-helpless with a man’s help, and it ends, much like men so often leave women, feeling vaguely unsatisfied. This kind of romance novel is called literary fiction. Anyway, for all my snark about men writing romance novels and somehow being literary geniuses, I enjoyed the book, more or less. I was reading it for work, so I’d only planned to read bits at a time, but one minute I was manning a booth at a county fair and the next I was so deeply involved with reading that when I looked up all the people in the neighboring booths had packed up and left for the day.
The book is about a family who witnesses a mob guy murder some other guy, so they’re put into the Witness Protection Program. After a number of years, Melody’s (the protagonist) parents testify against the powerful Bovaro family, and they’re murdered shortly afterward. So Melody is alone, has no family, has no friends, and doesn’t even have her own name. She’s mostly pissed and scared about all of this, and rightly so, but it didn’t exactly make for great reading. And if I’d had to read more pages of just her before we met Jonathan I would have been annoyed because the book was really beating us over the head with her discontentment before that point.
The story begins when Melody calls the U.S. Marshal in charge of her and informs him that she received a threatening phone call, even though she didn’t. So she’s on her way to another life taking along mere remnants of her old one. As they are moving her to her new location, Jonathan Bovaro, the son of the murderer they witnessed, shows up in her hotel room wanting to kidnap her. Sort of. He says he won’t hurt her, and she seems to believe him. And I believe him too, and we’re supposed to because he wears hipster glasses and doesn’t behave like a real mobster. I guess that’s a future tip for mobsters trying to kidnap people, get thee to a Warby Parker. Anyway, after some bumps and starts, including some West Virginia bashing, which is just oh, so, original, the love story begins. Though I’ll give the author credit for having the character take back everything bad they said about West Virginia after smelling how clean the air is. Yeah, that’s right, you take it all back! Okay, that’s a lot of digressions already, but during this process of driving from Virginia to New York, they get to know each other and fall in love. Hooray!
Jonathan is a dynamic character, a little cartoonish at times, but he’s thoroughly entertaining while also being oddly intense. He seems to believe that he needs to be a better person for Melody, so he stops smoking, doesn’t curse in front of her, doesn’t rough up random teenagers that spit in his car, and buys her really expensive clothing. We learn that he is also in a strange position because he is actually the person who told the cops about the murder Melody’s family witnessed, except he didn’t realize that his father was the murderer. Talk about a pisser, right? So as penance for inadvertently ratting on his own dad, he was the one supposed to kill Melody’s parents, and is supposed to kill Melody. It’s pretty nuts, and does lend an edgy feeling to the story.
And so they’re traveling and the U.S. Marshals try to get her back into a fancier WitSec, she refuses, and then we’re at the end. Where there were some pretty gaping holes. For example, Jonathan’s whole plan, that apparently he’s been thinking about for years, is dangerously short on details. So at the climax of the story, when they meet the entire Bovaro clan so they’ll miraculously decide they shouldn’t kill Melody because Jonathan’s in love with her, she just totally blurts out who she is. Seems like they could have anticipated someone asking her name and how to handle that firecracker of a situation. Seems like maybe Jonathan would have said, “Okay, this is how we’re going to do this…” but, no,nothing. No words of advice, no planning, just, your life is on the line so we’re gonna wing it. Consequently, the climax was quick, painful, and kind of made me want to vomit a little. Just a little brainstorming, and I feel like something could have been worked out. In case you’re wondering, they don’t kill her, but you have to wait for the second book for any sort of conclusion to this story. I mean, the conclusion to this part is that Jonathan turns himself in to the police, claiming that he murdered her. We don’t know the details because he puts Melody on a bus with all the money he has, and I think we’re to understand that he goes to jail (he doesn’t, he’s in WitSec), but that she’s finally free of being hunted by his family. So she finally gets to go to college, and regain some semblance of herself, and the book ends. Sigh. He’s so selfless.
At its heart, this is a story about our identity and just how fragile, yet necessary, it is to experiencing this life in any meaningful way. It’s why long after I put this book down, I thought about who I’d be if, all at once, I was stripped of my history, my story, and the future I thought I was working for. It made me think about the people who could even now be my neighbors who have started fresh more times than Serena on Gossip Girl with lives they didn’t get to choose. I can’t even really imagine it, as even armed with all those luxuries the world is still a pretty lonely place sometimes. So, thank you, book, my mother will be ecstatic that I call her more often. For now, of course.