Carrie’s mother died on Tuesday. The loss has fragmented her view of the world, dulled her senses (or is that the alcohol?) and sharpened her wit.
Given the circumstances, the novel’s narrative tone is a quick slap to the face, heightened colour left behind in the shape of what has struck flesh.
Readers will most likely determine within a few pages whether or not they are drawn to the narrative. Which is not to say that they will find it comfortable (there is nothing comfortable about this story, which suits the theme perfectly). But many will relate to the spiralling and unravelling with which Carrie grapples.
“You may notice that time begins to speed up the days following your mother’s death blur together as if someone has thrown your life and copious amounts of red wine into a blender and hit ‘liquefy.’”
Carrie is directing her instructions and observations to the part of herself that seems to be standing apart from what she recognized as her life before and after, which is an accurate way of describing the way the world looks after a significant loss. The ‘you’ in the text might be a little disconcerting at times, but as with Doug Harris’ You Comma Idiot, the decision fits the work.
(Actually, her mother’s death is not the only disappointment, not the only source of regrets, in Carrie’s life: the gradual accumulation of “liquified” losses has left her beneath the surface, struggling to catch a breath. It’s true, isn’t it, that sometimes it takes a series of unhappinesses to allow us to recognize the root of sadness, which was so deeply embedded that it has become the status quo.)
“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”
Hollie Adams takes this idea and runs with it, offering her characters and, in turn, her readers the opportunity to play with the possibilities. This is one of many devices which makes Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother such a memorable reading experience.
“If you have begun dating your ex-husband’s doppelgänger and not realized it until your mother’s funeral, turn to page 886 where you will find a pier. Walk off it.”
To the author’s and editor’s credit, the instances of these Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-styled decisions (who didn’t love those books, didn’t admire the simplicity they appeared to offer in terms of controlling one’s destiny?) are infrequent.
While Carrie’s tone could become overwhelming if the narrative didn’t have a variety of interruptions like these, their use is sparing, so that they do not become overwhelming either. (The pie chart and the lists were particularly fun for me, but as simple respite, each has another purpose as well.)
It’s unavoidable: Carrie is suffering and readers, too, would suffer with too much time in her company. And because grief has no borders and because there is no distance in the narrative itself (readers are completely immersed in her perspective), the only way to truly mitigate the impact is to keep the work short.
[Insert CYOA-styled moment: If you have a thorny and difficult narrator, and perhaps did not realize it until your manuscript was well under way, have the page numbering end at 168 and allow readers to walk off the pier into the sunset there.]
In such a controlled fashion, Carrie’s story is as often entertaining as it is disturbing. Even the chapter headings are amusing: “Get Your Groove Back (or Whatever You Had Before That Might Pass as a Groove – A Really Charming Rut, Maybe?)”.
But what makes them amusing is not so much a question of readers’ sympathy or empathy, but a matter of Carrie’s observations and intelligence. However disoriented and flailing she is right now, and regardless of the instances of poor judgement in her past that she chooses to share with readers the way, Carrie possesses a remarkable awareness and incisiveness.
This isn’t necessarily clear from Carrie herself (which makes sense given the circumstances) through the cloud of grief, but from the supplementary characters’ behaviours and observations, including her teenage daughter Kate.
“’Sorry, Mom only drinks Diet Mountain Dew or anything alcoholic. We have tap water if you want.’ You wonder what your daughter has the nerve to say when you’re not around.”
Kate is a smart and savvy young woman, who didn’t emerge fully-formed from the head of Zeus, so as naturally smart and savvy as Kate might be (even had she been left to her own devices from birth to the present-day), Kate’s sense of humour and ability to cope with the ground shifting beneath her feet reveals another aspect of Carrie’s person which is not immediately visible to readers at this particular juncture in her life but which must have informed her over time.
Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother focusses on Carrie, but the broader use of characterization does as much to build readers’ understanding of Carrie as Carrie’s own narrative. Ultimately, however, it is Carrie’s voice which will linger for readers, as much as for the cringes and winces as for the giggles and snorts.
The prose remains buoyant even when the narrator is sinking. And the novel’s structure is tightly knit, so that the final words leave readers with an understanding that the simple fact that readers are holding this story in their hands demonstrates that Carrie’s means of coping with her grief were effective after all.
(This is a spoiler-free space, but I would love to tell you exactly why the ending was so fitting.)
Still not sure whether this debut novel is a match for your reading taste? Links to other TLC readers’ thoughts appear below (and thanks to the publisher and organizers for the opportunity to join in this discussion).
Tuesday, May 5th: The Discerning Reader
Wednesday, May 6th: BookNAround
Monday, May 11th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, May 12th: Book Loving Hippo
Friday, May 15th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Tuesday, May 19th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, May 19th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, May 20th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, May 21th: A Dream Within a Dream