Discharged from active service in Iraq, young officer Lauren Clay arrives home for Christmas at Watertown, New York, excited about ‘the promise of relief that would come from doing everyday things’. She expects to resume her role as provider for her family, but is taken aback to discover that her father, bed-bound with depression for years after her mother walked out, is cheerful and working again, while her goofy thirteen-year-old brother, Danny, no longer a dependent child, is absorbed in his own world of YouTube videos and instant messaging. Excused from responsibilities, both domestic and military, and free to pursue her promising singing career, Lauren finds herself scorning those whom she had left behind to enjoy ‘the lax, entitled way of soft civilian life’. She no longer relates sympathetically to her boyfriend, Shane, and her best friend, Holly: trying on dresses in the mall is a dark imitation of arming for battle, shooting down snow skyscrapers with remote-control planes a grotesque parody of her military duties. As the convincingly portrayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress take hold, Lauren is pursued by urgent calls from army psychologist Eileen Klein, who knows all too well that ‘home is not always the safest place for a returning warrior’.
The novel is filled with high emotional rhetoric, though it takes a while for events to build up to real drama, the tension slowed by Danny’s inane chatter and the drunken rants of Shane’s uncles. The most interesting passages take place in Lauren’s head, but as her psychological state deteriorates,