Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Once More, Stewart O'Nan

I've been raving here on this blog for the past several months about the brilliance of Stewart O'Nan, a writer whose novels are about nothing and everything. His keen focus tends to be on the ordinary minutiae of daily living. I mentioned also, that some of the folks in my book group were divided in their opinions of Emily, Alone, half the room saying she should "get a life," the other half accepting her as she was.

I'd love to know just what they'd make of The Good Wife, a novel I just finished listening to in my car. An earlier O'Nan, written maybe 8 to 10 years ago, at first glance not as sophisticated and observant as his more recent work but it grew on me nevertheless.

I suppose that it was more difficult for me to get into the head of Patty, the good wife in question, than it was to understand and empathize with Emily. But all novels strike you differently depending upon where you are in life experience when you read it. True? I could imagine hundreds of women like Patty in small blue-collar New England towns like the one I lived in when I was married, the women home with the kids, the guys hanging in one of the many bars in town. A very insular life.

Patty and her husband Tommy, a character who's never really fleshed out very well making him difficult to either love or hate, are expecting their first child when he heads out with the "boys" for a night of drinking and carousing that culminates in a break and enter with bodily harm. It seems that Tommy has been supplementing his income by selling stolen property, but this time, he and his bad boy buddy have chosen the wrong home to burglarize. Their noise awakens the elderly woman who owns the home and, in her fear and confusion, she falls, hitting her head. Or was she attacked? Does it matter?

Tommy is sentenced to 28 years in prison. Patty is left to pick up the pieces of her life. At first you can't believe this is happening, neither can Patty and Tommy. You read along expecting that it's all a mistake, waiting for Tommy to proclaim his innocence, for a lawyer to turn up new evidence, but no, this is it. The entire novel is an homage to the strength of Patty, her sisters, her mother, and the women in this world who place their own lives on hold in order to hold others' lives together.

Remarkably, O'Nan manages to turn what could be an overwhelmingly depressing story into a rather beautiful novel about a young mother trying to raise her son and forge ties, however tenuous, between him and his father, a man he only knows through awkward visiting days at various penitentiaries throughout New York state.

Over the seemingly endless years, Patty goes from one crummy unfulfilling job to another, finally coming to the realization that if this is to be her life she'll need to take control of it, get herself educated, begin actually making some money, become a person her son Casey can be proud of. O'Nan does a great job describing Patty's small steps to independance and maturity. Little things like selling Tommy's truck to buy her first car reminded me so much of Emily, who also had to sell her husband's old car and choose something new, so perfectly symbolic of moving forward. Once again, Stewart O'Nan proves himself to be a master of understatement. Haven't read him yet? Your bad.

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