In Cara Blue Adams’ debut title, You Never Get It Back, we are introduced to an elegantly mastered and precise collection of linked stories, all centered around one main character and an over-arching theme: loss. Each of the twelve stories, divided into three sections, discreetly deliberates upon one woman — Kate — and the losses that make up her life. Kate is a studious woman from New England, and throughout the stories in You Never Get It Back, we travel from her childhood in Vermont to her moves to the Southwest and South in her twenties and thirties. She’s from a lower-class family where abuse and drugs litter her childhood, and there’s little to no money for the education she craves. Kate spends much of her adulthood trying to find her place amongst upper class friends.
Though it is technically the second story in the collection, the title story, “You Never Get It Back” begins Part I, the first major section of the book. Ostensibly titled for a line in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” this story acquaints readers with the weaknesses and aspirations of Kate, who is living with her mother in southern Vermont, contemplating where her life is headed. We see her endless yearning to belong, the lengths she’ll go to in an effort to please the men she’s with, and even more so the lengths she’ll go to hide a sexual assault so as not to appear fragile or difficult. This story also grounds us in Kate’s life, giving us her background, along with her friends, family, and romantic interests. We learn how acutely different she is from her best friend, Esme, who will appear throughout the collection: “Esme, with her vacations in Europe and her childhood bedroom with the canopy bed and white carpet and private, pink-wallpapered bathroom; Kate, with her summers spent working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and her futon mattress on the floor of the uninsulated back room I her mother’s drafty, government-subsidized house.” Kate’s longing to escape this life continues through the collection, as does her pliability and her willingness to back down when confronted by the more assertive people in her life. She is a woman desperate to find her place in the world.
Despite Kate’s passivity and unwillingness to advocate for herself, she becomes more self-aware as the stories progress. In “The Foothills of Tucson,” she says, “I told you about how I’d become interested in science, which was, for me, a way of asking questions of the world…” Here, she admits to wanting more. And eventually, after graduate school, she discovers she’s less of a scientist and more of a writer. This transition in itself gives her the opportunity to probe some of the questions she has about her life.
On top of the beautifully woven narrative, Adams uses her abilities as a writer to uniquely shape the book as a whole. Place is as much of a character as Kate or her mother or Esme. We are taken on a journey through the glimmering pink sun and ice-coated pine needles of Vermont, down the narrow streets and slushy sidewalks of Boston, through the purple mountains and dry earth of Arizona, over the blushing green of an artist residency in Virginia, and all the way to the wilderness of New Mexico. Adams also successfully switches points of view, oscillating between first, second, and third person and back again, all while keeping the cadence intact and the larger story of the collection on track.
Within these twelve vivid stories, the scope of Kate’s journey is broadened by characters like her mom and sister, a few friends, and her romantic interests. In “Vision,” Kate has transitioned away from science and back to her writing roots. During a stay at an artist’s residency where she struggles to find inspiration, Kate strikes up an unlikely friendship with a blind elderly artist. Although she meets others at the residency, it is the “old painter” whose words and wisdom make the biggest impression on her. Quoting art critic, Kay Larson, he says of Matisse’s life: “At times he surges forward with a new idea, as the confusion of influences under which he has been laboring suddenly sorts itself out. At other times, he draws back and gathers his energy, a process that can take years or even decades. Sometimes, both states exist in the same moment, linked by the courage to dare even to fail.” This scene gives us a context for Kate’s emotional and intellectual arc both as a human and as a writer — and the possibilities of what can be ahead for her. This brings readers back to the title, and we see that though one can never get back the time that is lost, one can act upon the experiences one accrues.
Finally, in the last story, “Desert Light,” we catch a glimpse of the life Kate has been searching for. On the eve of her wedding to a man who is gentle and reassuring, Kate is greeted by past and present relationships, including the influential players of the collection — Esme, her mom and sister, and her soon-to-be-husband. Though there is no tidy finality in “Desert Light,” Kate’s once cascading world has evolved from the angst of incessant searching to a sense of peace in the continuation of discovery.
The explorations of one woman’s life and love, loss and longing, acceptance and understanding are captured within a quaint 188 pages. Every sentence in every story is nuanced and complete, creating layers of meaning in which loneliness and longing are palpable, woven into each word — then again, so is determination and fortitude. You Never Get It Back is truly a masterfully curated collection containing what feels like the scope of a novel in a minute package.
You Never Get It Back
By Cara Blue Adams
University of Iowa Press
December 15, 2021