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Blame

Blame

3.7 59
by Michelle Huneven
     
 

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FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE
CHICAGO TRIBUNE FAVORITE FICTION OF THE YEAR
O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE TEN TERRIFIC READS OF THE YEAR
A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A KANSAS CITY STAR 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Patsy MacLemoore, a

Overview

FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE
CHICAGO TRIBUNE FAVORITE FICTION OF THE YEAR
O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE TEN TERRIFIC READS OF THE YEAR
A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A KANSAS CITY STAR 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Patsy MacLemoore, a twenty-eight-year-old history professor with a brand-new Ph.D. and a wild streak, wakes up in jail—yet again—after another epic alcoholic blackout. This time, though, a mother and daughter are dead, run over in Patsy's driveway. Patsy will the next decades of her life atoning for this unpardonable act. She goes to prison, sobers up, marries a much older man she meets in AA, and makes ongoing amends to her victims' family. Then, another piece of news turns up, casting her crime, and her life, in a different and unexpected light. Brilliant, morally complex, and often funny, Blame is a breathtaking story of contrition and what it takes to rebuild a life from the bottom up.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Michelle Huneven's novel Blame [is] one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in years.” —Jennifer Weiner, CBS's Sunday Morning

“A novel that combines the compulsive pleasures of a page-turner and the deeper satisfaction of true, thoughtful literature.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Unfolds like a thriller, creating a sense of urgency and mystery even about everyday matters. . . . Huneven's prose moves like a hummingbird, in small bursts that are improbably fast and graceful.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Smart, deep, addictive . . . Huneven's language hums, her dialogue jumps. . . . There are so many eye-popping scenes I would need to take my shoes off to count them.” —GQ

“Wonderful . . . How do you build lasting relationships when the world insists on crumbling around you? That's Huneven's theme here, and she does a lovely job with it.” —The Washington Post

“An elegant, hair-raising novel . . . Huneven's prose is flawless.” —The New Yorker

“The satisfactions Blame offers readers are elegant prose and, deeper than that aesthetic pleasure, the intelligence and compassion Huneven brings to her characters. She holds them all with the utmost tenderness.” —Los Angeles Times

“Michelle Huneven's new novel, Blame, is a lovely, shimmering tour de force, full of an astonishing sense of the beauty of the world, the inestimable complexity of moral consequences, and the bright pleasures of Huneven's prose. Read it.” —Roxana Robinson, author of Cost

“In Blame, a guilty protagonist strives for the good and achieves the beautiful--and, eventually, the truth. Huneven's supple, world-loving prose elevates small gestures into redemptive acts and everyday objects into restorative gifts, rewarding the reader on every page.” —Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black

“Huneven turns complicated moral issues into utterly riveting reading in this beautifully written story of remorse and redemption.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist (starred review)

“This book is a pleasure, on every level.” —Sue Miler, Bookforum

“Michelle Huneven is a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent, and Jamesland is a marvel.” —Richard Russo on Jamesland

“Like that other West Coast chronicler of struggling Americans, Raymond Carver . . . [Huneven] is not interested in literary pretension or postmodern razzle-dazzle, but in achieving a measure of truth--and her generous, engaging novel does just that.” —Valerie Sayers, The New York Times Book Review, on Round Rock

Maria Russo
Huneven makes Patsy's story unfold like a thriller, creating a sense of urgency and mystery even about everyday matters…Huneven's prose moves like a hummingbird, in small bursts that are improbably fast and graceful.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this gripping tale, Huneven charts the parameters of guilt and how a young, wisecracking intellectual becomes a shadow of her former self. Patsy MacLemoore, a boozy history professor, is helping her boyfriend, Brice, take care of his niece, Joey, whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment. But when Patsy goes on a bender and emerges from a drunken blackout in jail, she learns she's accused of having run down a mother and daughter in her driveway. After her conviction, Patsy transforms from free spirit into a convict, and Huneven deftly underscores the bizarre trajectory Patsy's life has taken. In a prison AA group, Patsy seeks redemption and meaning; she also develops a relationship with the man whose wife and daughter she killed and helps put his son through school, stays the course after her release and maintains a friendship with Brice and Joey. Brilliant observations, excellent characters, spiffy dialogue and a clever plot keep readers hooked, and the final twist turns Patsy's new life on its ear. Huneven's exploration of misdeeds real and imagined is humane, insightful and beautiful. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
In 1981, Patsy MacLemoore is a smart, functioning alcoholic. A professor at Hallen College in Altadena, CA, she is known for loud and lascivious behavior at faculty parties and for missing the occasional class after a night of drinking and taking pills. When Patsy, who has a suspended license, is arrested and jailed for hitting and killing a mother and daughter—both Jehovah's Witnesses—in her driveway, she doesn't remember the accident. After two years in prison, Patsy quits drinking, eventually returning to her old job but not her old ways. Patsy's sober life is carefully unfurled—new connections forged, old relationships changed, a constant background of remorse and shame—but the book's promotional copy somewhat spoils this talented author's (Jamesland) carefully nuanced, sharply focused narrative by trumpeting a plot twist that isn't even hinted at before page 220. VERDICT Recommended to readers who enjoy literary novels like Sue Miller's Lost in the Forest and Laura Moriarty's The Rest of Her Life that examine how a tragic accident irrevocably changes life's course. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/09.]—Laurie A. Cavanaugh, Brockton P.L., MA
Kirkus Reviews
Huneven (Jamesland, 2003, etc.) tracks a 20-year-old burden of guilt with supple technique. Alcoholism and integrity drive her novel, which is narrated with flashes of irony, appealing warmth and dry judgment. Patsy MacLemoore plays only a bit part in the opening scene, during which 12-year-old Joey, whose mother is dying in the hospital, spends a bizarre night in the care of her attractive, wastrel Uncle Brice and his girlfriend Patsy, an alcoholic history professor who gets drunk, gives Joey pills and beer and pierces her ears unevenly. The story proper begins a year later, in May 1981, and Patsy takes center-stage. During her latest blackout, she drives into and kills two Jehovah's Witnesses, mother and daughter. Prison follows, two harsh years from which Patsy emerges stripped to the emotional bone. She rebuilds her life assisted by Brice, his boyfriend Gilles (Patsy's not too surprised by that revelation) and the forgiveness of the husband and father of her victims. Seeking "a way to be good," she finds it caring for AIDS patients, starting with Gilles. She takes sanctuary in marriage to Cal, an older, richer man with a long history of helping the troubled. Patsy's resolution to be a better person means that she chooses not to act on her powerful attraction to a fellow academic. Twenty years after the killings, a stunning revelation forces her to recast her identity and her relationships. Grace, insight and seemingly effortless narration distract from the odd pacing and sometimes meandering progress of this empathetic tale.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312429850
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
05/25/2010
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
524,487
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

Blame


By Michelle Huneven

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Michelle Huneven
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8989-3


CHAPTER 1

PART ONE


July 1980

The first thing Millicent Hawthorne did after scheduling her surgery was to enroll her daughter Joey in a summer typing class at the local high school. Joey was twelve and had never set foot in a public school, but she'd refused to go to camp that year, and Millicent wanted her occupied.

First-level typing was at the end of a long corridor in a double-sized classroom where hulking blue typewriters with blank keys sat on each desk. A wall of windows overlooked a courtyard of blooming roses.

Although she would not make a single friend among them, Joey was intrigued by her fellow typists, especially the girls with their defiantly short skirts, long, straight hair, and expert makeup. How could they be so easy with one another? They tried to draw Joey into their huddles at the break, then left her alone, for which she was grateful.

Joey was instantly good at typing, surprising herself. She assumed she'd be bored by its lack of content. Typing, she found, was like playing the piano, minus the tones. A-S-D-F-J-K-L-Sem caught in her head like an arcane chant, a secret alphabet. Class got out at eleven fifty-five, and Marlene, the Hawthornes' housekeeper, would be waiting out front in her red VW station wagon. Together, they drove back to the house, where Marlene made crustless ham and butter sandwiches, one of the few things Joey would eat at that time.

The first week Joey was in typing class, her mother had a radical mastectomy. The doctors, claiming success, sent her home. When Joey went in to say hello, Millicent, an athletic six foot one, now seemed like a small, folded-up packet of herself, with eyes so sunken, Joey saw the contours of her skull. Millicent reached out a hand, and Joey, taking it, experienced the curious sensation of having her legs turn into water. The home nurse said she'd fainted, but Joey insisted that she never lost consciousness.

It soon became obvious that something more than pain was impeding Millicent's recovery. She went back into the hospital, and the doctors found a system-wide fungus and a new, invasive form of cancer in her spine.

Because Joey had collapsed after her mother's first surgery, she was not allowed to visit, at least not until Millicent had recovered somewhat. Joey had no doubt this would come to pass, because nobody told her otherwise and because one night her father asked her to help him pick out a gift for her mother's birthday four months away. They decided on an add-a-diamond necklace from the Gump's catalog, clearly a gift for someone with many birthdays to come.

During her fifth, penultimate week of typing, Joey walked out of the old brick high school to find not Marlene, but her tall, dazzling uncle Brice leaning against his Studebaker pickup.

Hi, beautiful, he said. Marlene was running an errand, he explained; Joey's father and grandmother were at the hospital. And I, he said, am at your service.

The family had drifted so rapidly into extremity that their long-held rules — no public schools, no discussing problems — had given way like spiderwebs. Thrilled as she was to have her renegade uncle fetch her from school like a common babysitter, Joey knew slippage when she saw it.

Brice was her mother's kid brother. He was twenty-eight and had already burned through his inheritance, more than a million dollars. Joey's father, in rare good humor on the subject, said that it was breathtaking and almost admirable how Brice, in an attempt to recoup the initial heart-stopping losses, had managed to obtain and lose trust money he wasn't even due to receive until he was thirty-five.

Brice was six foot four, with dark gold hair, overly tanned skin, and a nose he referred to as "the big old hook." Joey loved him thoroughly and irrationally and planned to marry him the moment she turned twenty-one and came into her own trust fund. (She'd heard there were states in the Deep South where uncle and niece might wed.) Joey dreamed of restoring Brice to the lifestyle and financial bracket where he rightfully belonged, although she also imagined dispatching her money with the same profligacy with which he'd already flown through his, if only for the sheer, exhilarating blur of it.

Clutching her flat typing manual against her chest, too smitten to speak, Joey climbed into the tobacco-scented cab of the rare Studebaker and Brice drove them to the Bellwood Hotel for lunch.


* * *

Joey's parents' best friends, Cal and Peggy Sharp, owned the Bellwood. Cal had inherited it from his father, and did what he could to keep it running in a town where the Sheraton, Hilton, and Doubletree had cornered the convention trade. Cal shut down two floors, rented residential suites to wealthy widows, booked offbeat conventions (rare books dealers, grandfather clock collectors), and housed two private clubs: the Downtown Club, where membership could be purchased, and the more exclusive, invitation only, Mojave Club.

Joey's father, Frank Hawthorne, was on the board of the Mojave Club, and the Hawthornes used the Bellwood as their second residence. Whenever Millicent called in the painters at home — she did that a lot — the Hawthornes moved en masse to the Bellwood's penthouse. And until their large, architecturally significant but deeply flawed glass-and-concrete foothill home had air-conditioning installed, the family sought refuge in those refrigerated rooms during heat waves. Frank and Millicent Hawthorne were both famous for their tempers; each time one or the other stormed out of the house, Joey and her two brothers knew where to find them.

The July day Brice drove Joey to the Bellwood, it was a hundred degrees out, dry and bright and as still as glass.

Brice was not a member of the Mojave Club. He never could've managed dues, even if he'd finagled an invitation. But with Joey trotting alongside, he headed straight into the Mojave dining room with its filigreed columns and mahogany wainscoting. The tables were padded and double clothed, the sterling polished, the water glasses heavy. Huffy, the Mojave's maître d', glided toward them on the diagonal in an attempt to steer Brice toward a middle table, but Brice sailed past to claim a coveted window booth.

Since returning from his four-year international spending spree last January, Brice had worked for Cal Sharp, who also owned the Lyster apartments on Avalon Street, where Brice was the resident manager and renovator. The Lyster had seen better days, and Brice's job was to reverse its course. Joey's father referred to the four-story faux château as "the ever-listing Lyster." Hello there, Brice, he'd greet his brother-in-law. How's life at the ever-listing Lyster?

The waiter brought Brice a beer in a V-shaped pilsner glass and Joey a Coke in a brandy snifter, her preferred glassware of the moment. She was just beginning to wonder what she and Brice would say to each other when she heard her name.

Joey, my girl. Cal Sharp stood over her, tall and important in his silvery suit and matching hair. His wide hand cradled the back of her head. His cologne was sharp, citric; and his other hand, resting on the tablecloth, was perfectly manicured, the nails pink and so smooth. You just missed March and Stan. They were here for breakfast, he said quietly, his grip tightening on her scalp. They'll sure be sorry they missed you.

March was Joey's age, but Stan, two years older, had been her great companion growing up, until he became a tennis star last year. At the Mojave Spring Fling he and Joey had ditched March and climbed up the fire escape to sit, swinging their legs off the side. There, Stan explained that if they were seen together so much at the club, people would think they were boyfriend and girlfriend. And while they would always be friends, he wanted a different kind of girl for a girlfriend, a pretty girl with long blond hair who was also an excellent tennis player.

You doing all right there, sweetheart? Cal murmured, leaning down. Everything okay?

His large male face so close to hers made it impossible to speak. Cal Sharp had never taken such notice of her before. And his eyes were growing red around their rims.

We're all praying for your mom, he said quietly. You know that, we're praying as hard as we can.

Oh. Her mom. That's right.

Most remarkably yet, Cal kissed her forehead. Then he kept his hand on the back of her head and talked to Brice about awnings for the Lyster's south- facing windows.

The waiter brought Brice a small club steak with french fries and Joey a crustless ham and butter sandwich. Joey hadn't been to the Bellwood since rejecting lettuce some days back, and seeing the thin green line dividing the pink meat and the white bread, she slid into what her mother called a fit. Joey never agreed with this term. Wasn't a fit some kind of muscle-flapping thrashing about? Whereas, when faced with the insurmountable, she simply froze for anywhere from a minute to an hour. There was no predicting it. Most episodes were brief, brought on by a food or something mean one of her brothers said. Her mother, who was often the only person to notice, was always enraged by what she felt was Joey's willfulness. But Joey really could do nothing other than wait for the so-called fit to pass, as she did now, with Cal Sharp's large hand cupping her head while he and Brice debated whether to buy striped or solid canvas. Cal, noting her untouched plate, tousled her hair. Forgive me, he said. I'll let you two eat.

Not hungry, baby? Brice said when they were alone. Want some steak?

Joey shook her head. Brice ate a couple of fries and glanced at his watch. I have to make a phone call. I'll be right back.

Alone, Joey pushed her sandwich aside and stole two of Brice's fries. The waiter removed the sandwich and, with a wink, set down a thick glass cup of pineapple sherbet, cold and perfect, tasting like snow.

Soon the waiter took Brice's steak away and returned it wrapped in foil in the shape of a swan. Joey took the swan, signed the check, and went looking for her uncle. He wasn't in any of the phone booths. She told the concierge, If Uncle Brice is looking for me, I'm in the ladies' snooker room.

The women in the Mojave Club used the ladies' book-lined snooker room for meetings. The snooker table was gone, replaced by big, comfortable chairs that pitched you back so far it was hard to get out of them. A large volume devoted to Michelangelo sculptures sat on the coffee table. Joey took this up, intending to continue her ongoing study of male anatomy.

Today, however, she paused at the Pietà, one of the few women in the whole book. Mary wore nunlike robes with beautiful folds and had Jesus' skinny dead body draped across her lap. People always referred to Joey's mother as "statuesque," but here was an actual statue, and it had nothing in common with Millicent Hawthorne. Mary seemed so delicate and calm, completely unlike Millicent, who always looked angry, although she always denied it.

Millicent had never fussed over Joey. She was an impatient mother who brushed Joey's fine hair roughly and tied her shoes and sashes with quick, harsh tugs. The two spent little time together; they never cuddled or confided in each other. Joey, in fact, made it a point to stay out of her mother's way so as not to annoy or inadvertently antagonize her. Yet despite the mutually cultivated wide, empty spaces between them, Joey was connected to her mother as if by a fine silver wire. If her father spoke angrily to Millicent, Joey burst into tears. If her brothers back-talked, Joey bristled in her mother's defense — she would not have been at all surprised to learn that she experienced her mother's feelings more keenly than her mother did. That day when Millicent came home from the hospital and Joey took her hand, Joey had inhaled both the dry, sickly-sweet must of sickness and her mother's terror, and it was more than she could bear.

Joey wandered again past the phone booths and over to the elevators. She pressed the button and considered going up to the roof to stick her feet in the pool, but when the elevator doors opened, out stepped Uncle Brice. Oh! There you are, he said jauntily. What shall we do now? How about a movie?

She wanted to go home, change out of her stupid school clothes. But going to the movies and sitting next to Brice in the dark was irresistible.

The Sound of Music was playing at the Big Oaks Revival House. Brice bought a tub of buttered popcorn, half a pound of Raisinets, and a box of ice-cream bonbons. During the previews he nosed the big old hook through Joey's hair until it rested against her ear. I'll be right back, he whispered, and stacked all the food on her lap.

Joey couldn't concentrate. She was embarrassed by the clumsy way that Julie Andrews ran, and by the fake way the nuns broke into song. She kept turning to see if Brice was coming back. There were only three other people in the theater, two men and an older woman who was eating noisily. Then cool moisture oozed from the box of ice-cream bonbons and some of it went on her skirt. Setting everything down on the sticky floor, Joey left for the ladies' room.

Nobody was in the lobby or at the candy counter. She ran upstairs to the lounge and sponged her skirt with a paper towel. She did not want to see the rest of the movie, but there was nothing to do in the lobby, so she returned to her seat and practiced typing on her knees — transcribing the movie as fast as she could.


* * *

The ticket takers and countermen were back at their stations, and still Brice had not come. She studied the movie posters in the lobby until people arrived for the second matinee, and she kept studying them as they stood in line and bought their snacks. When the lobby was empty again, she decided to call both hospitals in town to see if Brice was in an emergency room. Since she had no money with her and was too shy to ask for any, she decided to walk back across town to the Bellwood, where Huffy would let her use the phone, if he wasn't too angry about the steak-filled swan she'd left in the ladies' snooker room.

Joey set off down Green Street in the dusty, late afternoon heat. She'd gone about five blocks when the Studebaker pulled up alongside her. Patsy, Brice's girlfriend, smiled in the passenger seat. Hey there, she said.

The truck's door swung open. Patsy had long yellow-blond hair and long, tanned legs and a wide, happy smile that revealed all her perfect, straight teeth. She taught history at a local college, though Joey's father said she didn't look like any history professor he ever had.

Patsy kissed the side of Joey's head. Hi, kitten, she said. How was the movie? Ridiculous drivel? Yeah.

Show her what we got for her, said Brice, and Patsy handed Joey a tiny black velvet box.

Inside was a necklace — a small oval glass pendant on a thin gold chain, with matching oval earrings. All three ovals contained the same picture: the black silhouette of a palm tree and grass shack set against an orange sunset — exactly the South Sea paradise where, Joey imagined, Brice used to live.

Here, Patsy said. I'll fasten it. Her long nails grazed Joey's neck.

Look, Patsy said, and parted Joey's blouse at the neck so Brice could see the pendant. You're prettier every day, Patsy said. Isn't she, Brice?

Brice said, I've been in love with Joey since the day she was born.

Were they drunk? Both held bottles of beer between their knees.

Darn, Brice. Her ears aren't pierced. Well, that's easy enough. Patsy threw an arm around Joey's shoulder. We'll exchange these for the un- pierced kind.

Or I could get my ears pierced, Joey said. She'd asked to have them done this summer, but her mother said pierced ears were primitive and low-class.

Patsy squeezed her shoulder. They were driving east now, away from the Bellwood, school, home, everyplace Joey knew. Aren't we going to my house? she asked.

I have to stop in at work, said Brice.

He pulled up before the four-story white building, with its skinny turrets and pointy roof. Ah, said Joey, the ever-listing Lyster.

Brice and Patsy burst out laughing. We know whose daughter she is, Brice said.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Blame by Michelle Huneven. Copyright © 2009 Michelle Huneven. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michelle Huneven is the author of two previous novels, Round Rock and Jamesland. She has received a General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers and a Whiting Writers' Award for fiction. She lives in Altadena, California.

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