Mrs. Kimble
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Mrs. Kimble

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by Jennifer Haigh
     
 

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In her masterful first novel Mrs. Kimble, Jennifer Haigh delivers the compelling story of three women who marry the same man -- an enigmatic opportunist named Ken Kimble.

Birdie. 1961.

He was the choir director at a Southern Bible college. At practice she followed his hands with her eyes. Watching him, she

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Overview

In her masterful first novel Mrs. Kimble, Jennifer Haigh delivers the compelling story of three women who marry the same man -- an enigmatic opportunist named Ken Kimble.

Birdie. 1961.

He was the choir director at a Southern Bible college. At practice she followed his hands with her eyes. Watching him, she thought of the Pietà: Mary weeping over her son's crucified body, his naked arms smooth as milk, his chest delicately ribbed like the underside of a flower. She imagined his shoulders bare beneath his shirt, his body long and white. One evening he approached her after practice.

Joan. 1969.

She met him at a pool party in Florida. His lank dark hair hung to his shoulders; he wore faded jeans and a colorful cotton blouse. His eyes were a startling blue. No man had touched her in a year. He was engaged to someone else.

Dinah. 1979

They met by accident in Washington, D.C. Their paths had intersected once before, when she was a teenager. "You're a beautiful girl," he'd told her, oblivious to the hideous scar on her face. He was old enough to be her father.

Kimble is revealed through the eyes of the women he seduces: his first wife, Birdie Bell, who struggles to hold herself together in the months following his desertion; his second wife, Joan Cohen, a lonely heiress shaken by personal tragedy, who sees in Kimble her last chance at happiness; and finally Dinah Whitacre, a beautiful but damaged woman half his age. Woven throughout is the story of Kimble's son, Charlie, whose life is forever affected by a father he barely remembers. Ken Kimble is a chameleon, a man able to become, at least for a while, all things to all women. To each of the three Mrs. Kimbles, he appears as a hero to whom powerful needs and nameless longings may be attached. Only later do they glimpse the truth about this elusive, unknowable man.

A captivating exploration of human love, marriage, and the illusions upon which it is founded, Mrs. Kimble presents a fascinating psychological portrait of a mesmerizing opportunist and the women who believe in him. Beautifully wrought, stunningly original, Jennifer Haigh's sparkling debut marks the arrival of a remarkable new talent.

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Editorial Reviews

This ambitious debut novel focuses on three women, but it centers on their relationships with one man. Ken Kimble is a minister who converts himself into a real estate agent and a marrying machine. In rapid succession, he weds Birdie, Joan, and Dinah. Each woman is idealistic, yet self-doubting; each falls easy prey to the swift manipulations of ex-Reverend Ken. A graceful novel about women learning to heal themselves.
Judith Maas
Jennifer Haigh's Mrs. Kimble focuses a laser on that most irrational of decisions —whom to marry... Though the premise seems overly schematic, the result is an affecting tale of the power of a charismatic predator and the acquiescence of his victims.... Haigh is spare and low-key, masterful at delineating the quiet but revealing moment... Mrs. Kimble can be enjoyed as a sharply observed study of three women and the same stubborn, misplaced hopes that shape their lives.The Boston Globe
Susan Tekulve
This gripping debut novel examines how easily shrewd lies can be mistaken for acts of love. Spanning twenty-five years, it recounts the stories of three women who marry the same elusive man in succession. Alternately wise, charming and cold blooded, Ken Kimble is as charismatic as Mephistopheles, a sweet liar who promises each woman what she wants most of all in exchange for her complete devotion. To his first wife, Birdie Bell, he offers a way out of her small Southern town. To his second wife, Joan Cohen, a lonely heiress and breast cancer survivor, he offers hope for a final chance at love. His third wife, Dinah Whitacre, is a woman half his age who is disfigured by a birthmark on her face. Before marrying her, Kimble provides an operation that restores her beauty. With each successive marriage, Kimble gains wealth and worldly experience while his wives compromise themselves and fall apart. Haigh renders Kimble's sociopathic behavior in quiet, understated prose, carefully examining the mitigating circumstances that draw each woman to him. Though Kimble's rise to power drives the plot, the sophisticated portraits of his three wives provide the substance and intrigue in this book.
Publishers Weekly
The three women who successively marry Ken Kimble all believe they've found the perfect partner, and all are proven wrong in Haigh's uneven debut. Birdie is a student at a Southern Bible college in the early 1960s when she meets Kimble, then a handsome young choir director; they marry less than a year later, a day before she turns 19. After seven unfaithful years of marriage, Ken walks out on Birdie and their two young children, leaving the hard-drinking Birdie impoverished. Ken next surfaces in Florida in 1969, engaged to a formerly ambitious coed who dropped out of college to travel the country with him. He summarily dumps her to court 39-year-old Joan Cohen, a strong-willed Newsweek reporter who is recovering from breast cancer surgery. He marries her (after falsely telling her that he's Jewish) and joins her rich uncle in his real estate business. A few years and one miscarriage later, the marriage has quietly soured, and a few years after that Joan has a recurrence of cancer and dies. Ken's third wife is the much-younger Dinah, who used to be his children's baby-sitter. This marriage survives Ken's rise to prominence in Washington, D.C., as the founder of a successful charity. Haigh's women are believable, if a touch clich d, but Ken is a cipher. Haigh leaves us guessing about his motivations, and his irresistible appeal to these women-especially the tough-minded Joan-also remains murky. The novel has sharply incisive passages, but Haigh's thin characterizations don't quite live up to the promise of the clever, intricate premise. #1 Book Sense selection for March/April; Author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062062611
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
05/03/2011
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
394
Sales rank:
973,797
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Birdie
Virginia
1969
Charlie's mother sat cross-legged on the living room floor, her nightgown pulled over her knees, a spill of photographs scattered across the faded carpet. Years later he would remember the sound of the scissors' blades gnawing into the glossy paper, his little sister Jody wailing in the background, the determined look on their mother's face.

She had been drinking; her teeth were stained blue from the wine. She worked methodically, the tip of her tongue peeping out the corner of her mouth. The defaced photos she stacked in a neat pile: Christmases, family picnics, Fourths of July, each with a jagged oval where his father's face had been. One by one she slid the photos back into their frames. She climbed unsteadily to her feet and placed the frames back on the mantelpiece, the sideboard table, the naked hooks dotting the cracked plaster wall.

"Better," she said under her breath. She took Jody by the hand and led her into the kitchen. Charlie dropped to his knees and picked through the pile of trash on the floor. He made a pile of his father's heads, some smiling, some wearing a cap or sunglasses. He filled his pockets with the tiny heads and scrabbled out the back door.

His father was there and then he wasn't. A long time ago he'd taken them to church. Charlie could remember being lifted onto the hard pew, the large freckled hand covering his entire back. He remembered playing with the gold watchband peeking out from under his father's sleeve, and the red imprint it left on the skin underneath.

His father had a special way of eating. He rolled back the cuffs of his shirt, then buttered two slices of bread and placed them on either side of the plate. Finally he mixed all his food into a big pile -- peas, roast, mashed potatoes -- and ate loudly, the whole meal in a few minutes. Charlie had tried mixing his own food together, but found himself unable to eat it; the foods disgusted him once they touched, and his mother got mad at the mess on his plate.

His father made pancakes, and sucked peppermints, and whistled when he drove them in the car. On the floor of his closet, he kept a coffee can full of change. Each night lying in bed, Charlie would wait for the sound of his father emptying his pockets into the can, nickels and dimes landing with recognizable sounds, some tinny, some dry and dusty. It was always the last thing that happened. Once he heard the coins fall, Charlie would go to sleep.

Birdie was unwell. It was mid-morning when she opened her eyes, the room filled with sunlight. She rolled over and felt a sharp pain over her right eye. The other side of the bed was still made, the pillow tucked neatly under the chenille spread. She had remained a considerate sleeper, as if her sleeping self hadn't yet figured out that the whole bed was hers alone.

She lay there a moment, blinking. She had been dreaming of her childhood. In the dream she was small, younger than Charlie; she and Curtis Mabry, the housekeeper's son, had hidden in the laundry hampers. "You nearly give me a heart attack," said the housekeeper when she discovered them. "You're lucky I don't tell your mother."

Through the thin walls she heard movement, the bright tinkling music of morning cartoons. She lifted herself out of bed, her nylon nightgown clinging to her back. In the living room the children looked up from the television.

"Mummy," Jody squealed, springing off the couch and running to hug her leg. She wore shortie pajamas, printed with blue daisies.

Birdie wondered for a moment who'd dressed the child for bed. She couldn't remember doing it herself.

"Can I go outside?" said Charlie. He lay sprawled on the rug, too close to the television.

"May I go outside please," she corrected him. "Yes, you may."

He scrambled to his feet, already in socks and sneakers. The screen door spanked shut behind him. Birdie unwrapped Jody's small arms from her leg. "Let me get you some breakfast," she said. The children seemed to lie in wait for her, to ambush her the moment she crawled out of bed, full of energy and raging needs. At such times it could be altogether too much -- her stomach squeezed, the sign of a rough morning ahead -- for one person.

She took Jody into the kitchen. It was a point of pride for Birdie: her kitchen was always immaculate. The room simply wasn't used. She hadn't cooked in weeks, hadn't shopped except for brief trips to Beckwith's corner store, to buy wine and overpriced loaves of bread.

She found the box in the cupboard and poured the cereal into Jody's plastic bowl, decorated with pictures of a cartoon cat. She opened the refrigerator and a sour smell floated into the kitchen. The milk had spoiled.

"Oops," she said, smiling brightly. She ought to pour it down the drain, but the very thought of sour milk turned her stomach; she left the carton where it was. She eyed the wine bottle corked with a paper napkin. Beside it an unopened bottle, the one she hadn't got to last night. She closed the door.

"Looks like it's toast for us," she said. She put two slices of bread in the toaster. She hadn't finished the bottle, so why did she feel so wretched? On Sunday night she'd had two full bottles, and not so much as a headache when she woke the next morning.

The toast popped, the sound a jolt to her heart. Perhaps she hadn't overindulged, just consumed unwisely. She'd already learned that red wine hit her hardest, that a small meal -- toast or crackers -- cushioned the stomach and allowed her to drink more. Beyond that, the workings of alcohol were still a mystery. It seemed to hit her harder at certain times in her monthly cycle; why, she couldn't imagine. She wondered if this were true for other women. She had no one to ask. Her mother was dead, and anyway had never touched anything stronger than lemonade. Her father's new wife probably did drink, but Birdie couldn't imagine talking to Helen about this or anything else.

"Butter?" Jody asked.

"Sorry, button." Birdie spread the bread with grape jelly and thought of the wine.

She would have been married eight years that Tuesday.

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Meet the Author

Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short-story collection News from Heaven and four critically acclaimed novels: Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers, and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for work by a New England writer. Her short fiction has been published widely, in The Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories, and many other places. She lives in Boston.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
October 16, 1968
Place of Birth:
Barnesboro, Pennsylvania
Education:
B.A., Dickinson College, 1990; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 2002

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