I know Minna had a rough start. All those years in that crusty basement practicing piano until her fingers ached and God knows what else. But listen, we all get served a deck with some cards missing. Get up and get on with it, is what I say. I’ve done my reading about all of it: neuroses, psychoses, anxieties, and compulsions, blah, blah. I used to work for the Dr Howard Rivers, of the Rivers Center for Psychiatric Development, for God’s sake. And I’ve seen my fair share of churches and twelve steps.
It all boils down to the same thing: are you going to play the cards you got, or are you going to fold?
This is Sandra talking about Minna (obviously). Sandra too had a difficult childhood, which led to a rather difficult adult life – you may have already guessed that from the way she talks.
But who is Sandra? Or Minna?
Richard Walker is dead. His estranged family – ex-wife Caroline, daughter Minna, teenage son Trenton and Minna’s daughter Amy – arrives at their former home to sort through his things, look for valuables and collect their inheritance – after all, Richard was a wealthy man. But they are not alone. The old house is haunted by former occupants, Alice, a stereotypical housewife from the 1940s/50s, and Sandra, a raunchy woman in her mid-forties, who tried to drown her difficult childhood and youth in too much alcohol and relationships with the wrong men. The living Walkers hardly recognize the two ghost, only Trenton – who barely survived a near-fatal car crash – senses their presence and sometimes even hears their voices, though he cannot process what he’s actually hearing and fears he’s finally going crazy.
We accompany the Walker family on their trip down memory lane, with each other and on their one. Each chapter focuses on someone else, mostly told by Alice and Sandra – they intermingle their own stories with the past and present story of the Walker family, which paints an interesting portray of Caroline, Minna, and Trenton and also adds interesting yet spotty insights into Sandra’s and Alice’s lives. I love this technique of telling a story little by little from different perspectives and this is what I really liked about this book – though it did not always live up to the huge potential this technique offers. Oliver knows how to build up suspense so you want to find out how it all ends, even though you may not find every storyline all that convincing… Because this book has its shortcomings, and it actually has quite a few and rather important ones.
For one, a lot of the characters are not all that easy to grasp or likable because they represent a world of cliches and short hints rather than in-depth descriptions or portrayals. That said the question of whether you like a character or not depends on if you sympathize with the stereotype it depicts. Furthermore whether you understand most of a character’s motivation or her/his perspective on something depends on your respective knowledge of said stereotype and the cultural implications it conveys. So Minna, depicted as a surgically enhanced nymphomaniac, beds every guy she meets only because she wants to fill the void she feels deep down inside her with love and attention – or at least sex. This is why Minna is the least interesting or likeable character, because the cliche she represents is of no interest to me (I saw 4 seasons of SATC thank you very much …). Also Caroline and Trenton, both more likable because more tangible for me, represent their respective stereotype just as clearly and obvious as Minna; the same applies to Alice and Sandra. There could be so much more connection with all characters on various levels, but instead it all depends on whether or not you like the stereotypes that are used to depict them in this book.
As it happens I have a soft spot for most of the characters apart from Minna, so I truly enjoyed the book and was curious to find out how it ends, hence I read it in one day. This interest and excitement however did not make me oblivious to further shortcomings of this book, like the fact that on several occasions Oliver hints at something but doesn’t follow through. There is a character who’s presence in the book does not make a lot of sense except for reasons that leave behind the bitter aftertaste of an overtly contructed narrative for the sake of pushing some matters ahead. Also, while we learn that Trenton was in a car accident and nearly died, we never find out what exactly happened – something that I would like to know, especially since the accident is repeatedly mentioned and referred to and seems to be an important part of his story. Amy, Minna’s daughter, seems to mainly be used as a sort of prop whenever its needed regarding the plotline. Alice once mentions that she turned her back on her family when marrying her husband, but she never explains what exactly happens – so why the hell even mention it? For the sake of pushing the clichè of her story even further?
I imagined lying down with Thomas under a blanket filled with down, talking late into the night, waking up with the tips of our noses cold and the windows patterned with frost.
I imagined that we would be happy together, that together, we would be home.
This is Alice. And [spoiler alert] surprise, surprise: Thomas is not her husband.
Alice’s story was my favorite, maybe because it reminded me of other tragic characters I love, like John Williams’ Stoner or Willy Vlautin’s protagonists. Together with Sandra and Trenton she also get’s the best chance to spread her wings and try to evolve into something more than just another story tableau. You have to see for yourself how this works out for you – I loved her voice, they way she tells not only her own, but also the Walker’s story, and even Sandra’s. She is the oldest and the wisest, the first of them, at least as far as we know. It’s another cliche, maybe, but it also makes her the most sympathetic, at least in my opinion. Sandra too gets a opportunity to develop her story. Her at times vulgar language makes her even more likable, especially when she brings highly delicate issues to the point in her very own way. Thereby she is an obvious opposite to the tight-lipped Alice. Still: another clichè…
Long story short: it’s entertaining, it’s gripping, and it’s interesting; though it may not always be easy to ignore certain ruptures within the storyline, I really enjoyed this book.