Stevie Green is a little bit of a mess. She’s back in her hometown, living with her mother, and trying to avoid those three little wine bottles sitting in her car’s center console.
Getting Clean with Stevie Green, by Swan Huntley, author of We Could Be Beautiful, follows protagonist Stevie as she tries to establish a new life as a house reorganizer (not like Marie Kondo, she would say, their methods are different). She has stopped drinking, telling everyone that she is on a “cleanse,” and her only goal in life is to unseat La Jolla’s #1 cleaner. The dogged determination she approaches the task with would be admirable, if you didn’t get the sense that it was a cover for control over any single other part of her life. And when her social media-savvy sister joins Stevie as a partner in the organizing business, things get a little more complicated.
Stevie not only cleans these people’s homes but counsels them through their issues with family relationships and self-esteem. It’s a bit ironic that she’s able to dole out so much advice, and with so much confidence, when she doesn’t understand how her own life has fallen apart.
The novel focuses on Stevie’s perspective, with brief chapters from the characters around her: her sister, her mom who is just starting to date again, her high-school ex-boyfriend and her ex-best friend Chris. Stevie and Chris stopped being friends in high school due to a prank that Stevie believes to be the root of her failures in life, which she also believes Chris pulled, despite Chris’s insistence on her innocence. Chris sees Stevie’s move back as a chance to repair and rekindle their relationship (which, yes, used to include secret queer make-outs, something the two of them are definitely not talking about).
It’s an attitude that’s really relatable, a year and some change sober as I am, the idea that your whole life would be different if not for this one thing that happened to you. Of course, it might be true that the cruel prank pulled on Stevie in high school did derail her chance of getting into her dream college, as she believes, but it’s also probably true that her high school cocaine habit would have taken a wrecking ball to her life eventually anyway, even if she had gone to the dream school. It’s probably true that I drank a lot in college due to various heartbreaks at the hands of my exes, but honestly, I was drinking long before and long after meeting those exes too. And Stevie, like me a few years ago, is incapable of recognizing that other people were hurt in those moments, and often even hurt by Stevie herself.
The novel captures the mind of someone who is an alcoholic quite well, but speaking from personal experience, the mind of an alcoholic can sometimes be confusing and messy — and the novel is sometimes that, too. Character motivations aren’t always the clearest, especially the characters who aren’t Stevie. But that’s reflective of getting sober too: AA literature calls alcoholics “self-centered in the extreme,” and so it’s no surprise that the book doesn’t ever quite get past Stevie’s worldview.
I wish it did though, especially when it comes to Chris. Eventually, Stevie realizes what has been true all along: her high-school ex Brad is a jerk, who she’s clinging to for stability, while Chris actually loves her, despite Stevie continuing to push her away out of fear of their closeness and what it might mean about her sexuality. When the two finally get together, it lacks the catharsis of a decades-long resolution, instead tying up quite quickly. I mean, may we all fall in love with our maybe-ex and then start going to AA meetings (after ill-advisedly gritting our teeth through months of not-drinking) and feel nothing but good about those choices. But I wanted to spend more time in that phase of Stevie’s life, when she was actually “getting clean” and not just throwing herself into cleaning up other people’s messes.