Hester Smith, the narrator of Cris Mazza’s latest novel Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, is a failed journalist, failed drama department intern, failed teacher, and by her own assessment a failed lover. Her promising beginning at college has ended with an uninspired career at a greenhouse that she discovers is a site for a human trafficking ring that forces girls to perform as prostitutes for landscapers. Hester decides her only course of action is to rescue one of these girls and make the girl’s story known to the comfortable middle class who find it easy to ignore the plight of poor foreign girls smuggled over the border for purposes of the sex trade.
In the midst of this endeavor, Hester revisits her own past and begins to question the choices that have led her to where she is today. The story of the teenaged girls, taken from their families in Mexico and brought to the U.S., becomes interwoven with Hester’s memories of her own young adulthood. Hester learns that the man who had supervised her when she was a teacher’s aide—a man with whom she very nearly had an affair—had simultaneously had a sexual affair with one of his sixteen-year-old students. The stories of these three young women, and their evolving attitudes surrounding desire and abuse, weave together into one compelling, honest book.
Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls is the eleventh novel by Cris Mazza. Mazza has won numerous awards and praise in such places as the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls showcases exactly what readers have come to love and expect from this author, who leaps as nimbly from one voice to another as she does from one point in time to another. Those who have already read and enjoyed such Mazza works as Waterbaby or Trickle-Down Timeline will find more to love here, and those unfamiliar with Mazza’s oeuvre will be won over.
Mazza pieces together Hester’s story through the use of letters, journal entries, flashbacks and more traditional narrative. Layering formats is a technique that Mazza has used before, but it is particularly effective in Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls. The juxtaposition of unsent letters Hester writes to her former supervisor with their memories of the drawn-out semester of sexual tension they shared serves to make the past as immediate to the reader as it is to Hester Smith herself. Hester, still fascinated with her former supervisor, searches through the memories of desire she had for him as a woman of 23 in an attempt to excuse what public opinion deems to have been his abuse of his other young student. Hester struggles to justify his behavior even as she tries to rescue another young girl who is beholden to male desire in a more definite way.
Though Hester would undoubtedly consider herself a feminist, we see continually throughout her reminiscences her need to validate herself though the approval of men. When confronted with the sex crime of her former supervisor, she never questions how she could have loved the man or even how such a thing could have gone on in her presence. The question that haunts Hester is “Why her?” The other, implicit question is “Why not me?” We see throughout Hester’s life that her protectiveness toward other women and her resistance to overtly sexual men have less to do with her disgust for sexual harassment than with her envy of the sexual attention that excludes her.
It seems to be a pastime of reviewers to label Mazza and her works, even though the labels assigned often disagree with each other. With this book, I suspect, it will be no different. Already I have seen it called everything from a coming-of-age novel to a feminist one. If forced to call it anything, I would say it is “unflinching,” a rarity of a book touching on such controversial subjects as female desire, sexual harassment, sexual maturity, and our own culpability as a society for the way young women are treated as chattel, as in this novel, right beneath our noses.