“There was a weight to missing. It was as heavy as a child.”
Rose never stays anywhere for long. First she marries suddenly, then she spends days and weeks driving around California, then she runs away to Kentucky. She settles and brings up her child in the strange surrounds of nuns and pregnant girls at a home for unwed mothers.
Rose is a surprisingly unsympathetic character with a lack of motive for being so – it’s never really explained. Nevertheless, her reluctance to invest emotionally in other people makes for an interesting counterpoint to the warmth of the characters around her, especially Son, who is so caring and gentle. She constantly pushes everybody else away, and Cecilia is the only one we see really examine that.
I guess there’s a recurring theme here of religion and vocation – Rose marries her first husband feeling that it’s her vocation, then that she must have been wrong. She stays at St Elizabeth’s for years, cooking three meals a day for twenty years – clearly she feels some kind of vocation to be there. The assorted religious attitudes of the nuns at the home, of the girls in their varying states of faith… it wasn’t until I finished the book that it hit me that this was a theme. It didn’t really seem to go anywhere though – just a thread through every character.
There’s no denying Patchett writes beautifully. I read this 400 page novel in a day with no trouble at all. While I never felt totally sucked into the plot, the writing is smooth enough that you just keep turning the pages without noticing. I liked the way this book moved from one narrative point to the next about every hundred pages – from an initial third person narrator in Habit, to Rose to Son to Cecilia. It dealt with the passage of time neatly and gave us the chance to move through different characters without having that irritating back-and-forth that plagues the modern crime novel.
The setting (and I’ll ignore anything that’s not Habit, Kentucky, because that’s where 90% of the book is set) is evocatively enough written without ever becoming a character of its own. The huge hotel could easily have become a character of its own (as the house does in The Thirteenth Tale), and we feel Cecilia’s frustration through the long, hot summers, the pitchers of iced tea, the swimming hole, without ever really having a strong sense of place.
This lost 2 points out of 10 from me – one for the fact that it was good but didn’t reach out of the page and grab you by the throat (the way that Bel Canto did) and one for the ending. I won’t say much for fear of spoilers, but a deeply difficult and uncomfortable situation is engineered, without any kind of resolution. After 380 pages of stunning writing, this was so dissatisfying I didn’t know whether to think the book was 20 pages too long (i.e. it should have ended before the twist) or 40 pages too short (the twist was unresolved – particularly with Cecilia having stumbled onto a big clue shortly before the end).
One other thing – I’ve never heard of Mariner Books, the publisher, before… just looked them up and it seems to be an imprint of Houghton Miffler Harcourt. But worth a mention, because this was a really beautiful edition, considering it was just a standard paperback; there was something about the softness of the cover, the type of paper used for the pages… I don’t know what it was. It was nice not to have to break the spine to lay it flat on the table while I ate my slow cooker beef stroganoff (yum).
Bought at McNally Jackson Books in downtown Manhattan on a recent trip to New York.
Publisher: Mariner Books, 392 pages (paperback)
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