Celeste, the wheelchair-bound narrator of Linda Legter’s novel Connected Underneath, promises to tell us everything, even the parts too terrible to share. Then she admits “there, already: I’ve hardly begun and I’m already lying.” Whether or not Celeste’s lies are as pivotal to the story as she’d like to think is open to debate and, truthfully, she’s the least interesting part of the story, anyway.
Celeste lives in Madena, a tiny town in upstate New York. She introduces the reader to the novel’s key players: Theo and Natalie – high school friends, although Theo had definitely hoped for more. Natalie, however, liked boys like Mike Teague, high school basketball star, because “Theo was from the wrong side of town, her side, and she wanted a different side.” When she becomes pregnant, Natalie turns to Theo for help and he ends up adopting her daughter, whom he names Persephone. (A fitting name, as it turns out -Persephone was the goddess of the underworld – because Seph, at fifteen, is a little off the rails.)
Theo and Seph are actually disconnected these days. Seph is in love with a girl called Krista, but she trades sex for tattoos. Billie, the tattoo artist, is “sweet, gentle, swift, so it never seemed like a very big deal, not even the first time, the time that drew blood.” Of course, Seph keeps the tattoos and the sex from her father, but even so, Theo is beginning to worry about his daughter; “he was sure his girl was in trouble.”
So that’s the impetus for a visit to Natalie’s house across town. She lives with her husband, Doug, and their son, Max. Natalie doesn’t really want anything to do with Theo and shows little interest in the daughter she gave up fifteen years ago. In fact, when Theo admits he’s afraid of losing her, Natalie’s response is callous and decidedly un-motherly: She tells him, “You’re too late. Not my fault.”
Connected Underneath is a story about secrets – those we keep from each other and those we keep from ourselves. It is also a story about the damage we can do, both willfully and inadvertently. Everyone in Connected Underneath seems to operate, ironically, without actually realizing how they are connected and when the secrets bubble to the surface, discretion is abandoned and truth is used as a weapon.
Theo is definitely the most sympathetic character. Despite a fraught childhood, he has always tried to do the right thing. He loves his daughter, even if he isn’t quite sure how to keep her safe. Natalie is another story. I didn’t like her and also, more importantly, didn’t believe her. Not for a minute. And then there’s Celeste. As she watches Theo’s world unravel, her world – miraculously – begins to right itself. Can’t say that I was all that invested in her, either.
On the plus side – Connected Underneath is an elliptical, strangely compelling story about the ways we try to save each other, even when we can’t. It is well-written, even if I didn’t believe in some of the characters. It is almost relentlessly grim, but sometimes life is just like that.