Friday, April 07, 2017

Book review: Stacia Pelletier's The Half Wives, set in late 19th-century San Francisco

Jack Plageman would have turned sixteen on May 22, 1897. However, tragically, he'd died in his crib on his second birthday. His parents’ lives haven’t been the same since. The observance of the sad anniversary takes the form of a ritual – an annual visit, timed precisely for 2pm, to San Francisco’s city cemetery, preceded by the replanting of a small garden around his tombstone. Nobody dares to change this.

That is, until this year, when the patterns are disrupted. All the characters come together at last, and long-concealed secrets spill forth.

The chapters in this finely tuned novel about grief, interpersonal connections, and the long journey toward independence revolve among four viewpoints. Henry Plageman, Jack’s father, is a former Lutheran minister turned hardware store owner. Stuck in the Golden Gate police station overnight after disturbing the peace at a local meeting, he needs to get himself out before 2pm, when he’s due to meet his wife. The cemetery where Jack’s buried sits on prime California real estate, overlooking the Golden Gate strait, and it’s a potter’s field: mostly immigrants and the destitute are interred there. When locals had proposed that the graves be moved elsewhere, Henry had made his objections loudly known.

Henry’s wife, Marilyn, who’s emotionally estranged from him yet tied to him via Jack, tries to drown her grief in endless charity work, but never succeeds, and doesn’t really want to. The third and fourth perspectives are those of Lucy Christensen, Henry’s secret lover, who misses him greatly but needs to break things off for her own sanity; and her lively eight-year-old daughter, Anna (nicknamed Blue), Henry’s only living child, who adores her father even though he sees them only rarely.

The Half Wives has three aspects that may take potential readers aback, even those who seek out literary fiction. The dialogue uses dashes instead of quotation marks;  the plot of this 320-page book spans a mere six hours; and the perspectives of Henry, Marilyn, and Lucy are told in the second person. (Still with me?) This latter choice is startling, and I found it difficult to process at first. Fortunately, the pronoun difficulties mostly fell away after the first few chapters, and the use of “you” served to enhance the effect of characters going through the motions, rather than actively participating in their own lives.

The novel moves smoothly among the four viewpoints, and between present-day events and people’s memories about their moments of happiness and heartache. Pelletier provides poignant insight into the odd dependent relationship between Lucy and Marilyn that directs their lives, even though they’ve never met, and Marilyn doesn’t know of Lucy’s existence. Henry can’t bring himself to leave either woman, though it’s clear that his avoiding that decision has wrought its own set of consequences.

Henry’s also oblivious to the reality of Lucy’s situation, which she knows.

He loves your humble cottage by the sea. He used to call it home. Even though he never spent a full night inside. He adored its cleanliness, its unpretentiousness. Its separation from the everyday. 
His everyday. Not yours. He never saw you scrub a floorboard. But you did scrub them. 

The questions of whether Lucy can get up the courage to leave him, and how, create some compelling moments.

Although the characters are the focus, the historical setting, the “Outside Lands” of northwestern San Francisco – stunning yet remote, decades before the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction – is critical. The story emphasizes how the city treats its orphaned and poor residents, from childhood until after death.

Recommended for literary fiction readers who don’t mind taking their time or making some mental adjustments to the unusual style. It’s well worth it.

The Half Wives was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Tuesday in hardcover and ebook; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.

No comments:

Post a Comment