What if suburbia is a type of cult?


Alison Wisdom

We Can Only Save Ourselves

Harper Perennial

Paperback (also available in e-book, audiobook, audio CD, and hardcover), 978-0-0629-9614-5, 336 pgs., $16.99

February 2, 2021


Houston writer Alison Wisdom’s impressive debut novel, We Can Only Save Ourselves, raises uncomfortable questions about parental expectations, social conformity, suburbia, and more. Her book also takes a not-so-common approach to storytelling; along with traditional third-person narrative, an invisible Greek-style chorus sometimes steps in and presents the collective views of a neighborhood that feels its chosen way of life is under threat.


The author’s central character, Alice Lange, has grown up being seen as a nearly perfect child in the eyes of some of the adults on her tight-knit block. She’s beautiful, well-behaved, a good student, a cheerleader, and now favored to be her high school’s homecoming queen. Indeed, Alice has represented a model of conformity and cooperation that other parents in the neighborhood have long wished their children would emulate.


All of that changes quickly once a stranger walks through the neighborhood carrying a camera. The man, Wesley, in his late twenties or early thirties, is seen by several people who pay him almost no attention. Wesley, however, spots Alice reading a book on her porch and boldly asks if he can photograph her. Rather than flee from him, Alice poses and agrees to meet him later to see the results.


Two days later, Alice suddenly commits an act of vandalism. Then she takes some money and vanishes. Her mother and neighbors fear she has been abducted—or worse.


What Alice has done is go live with the hypnotic, mercurial Wesley. She has fled adolescence and now is learning how to co-exist and cooperate with the four other young women in Wesley’s cult. They all listen to his words, try to follow his unusual orders, and attempt to meet his expectations, while competing daily for his attention and approval.


Sometimes the neighborhood chorus seizes the narrative spotlight; other times it’s allowed to make just a short, parenthetical statement. The chorus already knows what’s unfolding, so it chooses words carefully. “We know bad things happen in the world, that they always have, that they’ll continue to do so. We also know that we can’t stop them, and this knowledge is almost worse than the bad thing itself. That’s what we’ve learned from Alice Lange. Sometimes the darkness wins.”


The chorus eventually reports that Alice’s disappearance has exposed a troubling realization: neighbors can grow distant from neighbors who’ve endured bad situations that upset suburban tranquility. Alice’s mother, the chorus confesses, is becoming “a lost thing, too. . . . We simultaneously try to hold her in our hearts—we know she hurts, she is broken, she was much like us not long ago—and push her out of our hearts, because if we think about her too much, the pain begins to burn like a tired muscle, and we can’t carry her any longer.”


From this, other lamentations by the chorus, and Alice’s experiences, new questions arise. What if suburbia also can be seen as a type of cult? And what might happen if it keeps trying to protect itself from its own reality, as well as from the outside world?


Alison Wisdom is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in Ploughshares, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, she also holds her MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children. Her novel, We Can Only Save Ourselves, was published in February 2021 from Harper Perennial. She is also at work on a short-story collection that explores marriage and parenthood.