Winner of the National Book Award

Winner of the National Book Award

3.6 5
by Jincy Willett
     
 

Winner of the National Book Award, the long-awaited novel from the author of the acclaimed collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, is an unusual and wonderful novel that is somehow able to be at once bleak and hilarious, light-hearted and profound.

It's the story of two sisters. Abigail Mather is a woman of enormous appetites, sexual and otherwise.

Overview

Winner of the National Book Award, the long-awaited novel from the author of the acclaimed collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, is an unusual and wonderful novel that is somehow able to be at once bleak and hilarious, light-hearted and profound.

It's the story of two sisters. Abigail Mather is a woman of enormous appetites, sexual and otherwise. Her fraternal twin Dorcas couldn't be more different: she gave up on sex without once trying it, and she lives a controlled, dignified life of the mind. Though Abigail exasperates Dorcas, the two love each other; in fact, they complete each other. They are an odd pair, set down in an odd Rhode Island town, where everyone has a story to tell, and writers, both published and unpublished, carom off each other like billiard balls.

What is it that makes the two women targets for the new man in town, the charming schlockmeister Conrad Lowe, tall, whippet-thin and predatory? In Abigail and Dorcas he sees a new and tantalizing challenge. Not the mere conquest of Abigail, with her easy reputation, but a longer and more sinister game. A game that will lead to betrayal, shame and, ultimately, murder.

In her darkly comic and unsettling first novel, Jincy Willett proves that she is a true find: that rare writer who can explore the shadowy side of human nature with the lightest of touches.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Willett's second book...is a brilliant black comedy starring twins with antithetical dispositions and a handsome stranger with designs on both of them....Poignant and funny, mean and tender, Willett's novel is exuberantly original."

- Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever. Brilliant, totally original, and worthy of its title. I promise you will laugh constantly and to the point of stomach damage."

-Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry

"Audaciously titled, cleverly constructed, Winner of the National Book Award is an elegy wrapped inside a satire, a sorrowful meditation on the mysteries of sibling love and rivalry concealed within a bitterly funny chronicle of literary buffoonery. Jincy Willett is a fearless writer, capable of startling the reader into rueful laughter at every turn."

-Tom Perrotta, author of Joe College

"'A well-wrought piece of fiction,' the heroine of this novel declares, 'helps us make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Why be deliberately obscure when real life is so impossibly fractured and opaque?' Well, exactly. How rarely the knacks for wisdom and for cracking wise come in one single, satisfying package. (Also, who knew Rhode Island could be so entertaining?) So: hurrah for Jincy Willett, and for her funny, charming, humane, and altogether well-wrought piece of fiction." —Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century

Augusten Burroughs
"The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever. Brilliant, totally original, and worthy of its title. I promise you will laugh constantly and to the point of stomach damage."
Tom Perrotta
Winner of the National Book Award is an elegy wrapped inside a satire, a sorrowful meditation on the mysteries of sibling love and rivalry concealed within a bitterly funny chronicle of literary buffoonery.
Kurt Andersen
How rarely the knacks for wisdom and for cracking wise come in one single, satisfying package.....So: hurrah for Jincy Willett, and for her funny, charming, humane, and altogether well-wrought piece of fiction."
Elle

"Willett's prose is whip smart, at times howlingly funny--and just sad enough to keep the sisters' rivalries achingly real."
New York Times - Janet Maslin
"Riotous . . . hugely funny . . . Willett's satirical abilities remain deliciously undimmed. . . . A wicked treat."
Entertainment Weekly
"what a funny, smart-mouthed, fearless, reverberating rumble of a tale this novel is! Willett is effortlessly, furiously funny. . . . A."
New York Times Book Review
"Page by page, this novel is effortlessly enjoyable: Willett observes details unsparingly and with great good humor."
Time Out
"A sharp, highly original satire."
BookPage
"Anything but predictable . . . [A] darkly comic tale . . . sly, humorous . . . An original work of fiction."
Providence Journal
"This hilarious, moving, ultimately poignant and perceptive novel, riddled with Rhode Island legend, lore and locations, is wonderful."
The Onion
"Unnerving, scabrously funny, and disarmingly tender . . . [Willett's] confident, muscular prose immediately establishes her authority."
Miami Herald
"A hilarious black comedy . . . brilliantly constructed and unabashedly vicious . . . Nothing escapes [Willett's] notice."
Boston Herald
"Dorcas' deadpan narration is perfect. . . . Willett's hapless characters are, in the end: grotesquely flawed, hugely funny, but human."
Seattle Times
"Willett plays artfully with narrative structure. . . . [She] is a writer to watch."
The New York Times
Those who so fondly remember Ms. Willett's only other book, the long-out-of-print (but recently reissued) short-story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life, will recognize her trademark wild acerbity and her preoccupation with strange, semitragic sibling connections. If her tart observational powers tend to sprawl over the course of this hugely funny but uneven novel (any book featuring an extended food fight is showing signs of strain, even if one of its characters has an eating disorder), this is a welcome comeback anyhow. Ms. Willett's satirical abilities remain deliciously undimmed. — Janet Maslin
Publishers Weekly
Willett's second book, after 1987's Jenny and the Jaws of Life (a collection of stories re-released last year with a foreword by David Sedaris), is a brilliant black comedy starring twins with antithetical dispositions and a handsome stranger with designs on both of them. Zaftig Abigail has turned promiscuity into an art form, while the literary, virginal Dorcas finds pleasure in the library-in its books, but also in the graffiti scrawled on its facade. Dorcas recounts Abigail's scandalous coming-of-age, marriage and eventual act of murder, weaving in excerpts from the book version penned later by Abigail and the sisters' friend, Hilda. Through Hilda and her writer husband, Guy, who considers Abigail "art itself," the twins become involved in a circle of artsy, intellectual and morally decadent friends. Abigail soon falls madly in love with Guy's old friend, the charming but sadistic Conrad, and ensnares herself in a destructive spiral of dieting, degradation and dependency. Through a fascinating interplay of violence and desire, Abigail's masochistic tendencies unfold (Dorcas had identified them as a teen: "I stopped hitting her only when I saw, through the stars of my rage, that she loved it"). It's hard to decide whom to cheer for most: Abigail for her triumphant revenge or Dorcas for her sense of humor, keen perception and restraint. Willett does a remarkable job of treating dark subject matter with shimmering playfulness, without diminishing its monstrosity. And embedded in her narrative is also a reflection on the subjective and sensual nature of written expression. Poignant and funny, mean and tender, Willett's novel is exuberantly original. (Oct.) Forecast: No, it hasn't won the National Book Award yet, but the cheeky title may fool a few unsuspecting readers. The Sedaris imprimatur gave new life to Willett's first book; her second (selected by Anna Quindlen as a Book-of-the-Month Club judge's pick) looks likely to build handily on the first's success. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This dark but comic first novel (by the author of the short story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life) is filled with evocative descriptions and pitch perfect dialog. Willett has devised a nicely original plot twist on the old chestnut of sibling rivalry and animated this novel with wonderfully realized characters. Ever since they were born, Abigail and Dorcas Mather have been polar opposites. Decorous Dorcas, who narrates the book, escapes into the world of reading, while Abigail, whom Dorcas refers to with bitterness and affection as "the warrior bawd," fulfills her appetites heedlessly, whether they're directed to sex or food. When the woman-hating ex-gynecologist Conrad Lowe comes to their small Rhode Island town, he is drawn to both sisters-to Dorcas for her restraint, intellect, and disdain for him, and to Abigail (whom he marries) for just what you might expect. As Conrad's perverse and malignant nature (this is one loathsome human being) is gradually revealed, tension among the sisters and Conrad reaches a fever pitch, and tragedy follows. From its opening lines to its satisfying conclusion, Willett's novel is enormously involving. For all public library fiction collections.-Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Hidden behind that dumb title is a mildly creepy tale of misbegotten love and ultimate revenge, a second outing from Willett (Jenny and the Jaws of Life, 1987). The action is set in Rhode Island in the 1970s. Abigail and Dorcas Mather are twins, born in 1938, and polar opposites, as we are reminded repeatedly. Dorcas is mind, Abigail is body. Dorcas, the narrator, who will become a head librarian, decides at age 12 that she will reserve her sensuality for books: "I yearned for duty the way Abigail yearned to show her ass." And show it she does, one carousing night, to the football team, who promptly gang-rape her. Abigail is simply happy to be the center of attention. She'll go on to a brief first marriage and motherhood (the twins raise daughter Anna together) before becoming a "mailman" and poisoning half the marriages in town. On her rounds, she meets Guy De Vilbiss, world-famous poet, and his sycophantic wife Hilda; the pear-shaped Guy and sheeplike Hilda come across as unprepossessing freaks. Through this couple, the twins meet Conrad Lowe, who will be their nemesis. Most famous for the exposé of his mother, an evil Hollywood diva, Conrad is a manipulative sadist, " a ladies' man who hated ladies." While Dorcas reads him correctly, Abigail, though no masochist, falls in love with him, and Conrad relishes her as the perfect victim. On their honeymoon, Conrad chains the seriously overweight Abby to the bed and starves her. The marriage goes downhill from there, and Conrad even manages to humiliate the virtuous Dorcas sexually before Abby recovers her pride and runs Conrad over, eight times. Willett is trying for black comedy but doesn't find the right blend of light and dark. Abby'sflip-flops, Dorcas's puzzling celibacy, and Conrad's dated, Noel Coward-like Waspishness just don't help.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312311810
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
09/28/2003
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.19(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

One

An Ordinary Birth

Chapter 1

An Extraordinary Birth

Abigail Mather was special from the very beginning.

A fraternal twin, she had her birthday all to herself. Abigail was born, to Mathilda Wallace Mather, in the Providence Lying-In Hospital, on the thirty-first day of December, 1938. Six hours later, in the New Year, her twin, Dorcas, was born. Doctors and nurses exclaimed over this phenomenon, which had never before happened in the history of the hospital.

Here's oral history for you. Here's folk tradition. Hilda obviously didn't bother with any pesky, prosaic research. Why go down to the actual hospital and rifle through moldy files when you can get it from the horse's mouth?

Well, our filly has a convenient memory. We got this story, about the two distinct birth dates and being a legend in our own time, from Mother. Mother lived in a magical world, where the unbearable was blinked away even if it was ululating and pointing and hopping up and down in front of you, and the past was always rosier than actual experience. There was nothing wrong with Mother's mind, or her intellect, either. She was just, like her first daughter, remarkably good at fantasizing.

Abigail and I were born within fifteen minutes of each other on the last day of 1938. It says so on the certificates. We learned this, at the age of twenty, after having bragged for years about our unusual debut. I suspect the story started with Mother amusing herself, in a relatively innocent way, with alternate, more exciting versions of the great event, imagining different ways it could have happened, eventually hitting on this one, the most dramatic. After that it was a simple trick for Mother to forget that the story wasn't true.

Doctors and nurses did not &'grave;exclaim'' over you, Mother. I wish for your sake they had. You never did get enough attention in this world. You weren't as good at it as some.

There was, in fact, something rather special about our birth, but it won't be reported in In the Driver's Seat. Abigail came first all right, and she was a breech. They had to knock Mother out, so intense was her prolonged agony, and rummage around inside her like a cow, but no matter how often or how firmly they turned Abigail, she wiggled herself back into her preferred position.

Ass first. That's how she finally came out. My sister mooned the world for two hours while, behind her, I choked for air and sustenance. My sister blocked the light with her pinchable, Rubenesque behind while I groped, disoriented and blind, for the exit. All I wanted was to breathe and see. Just let me live.

My sister emerged with a list of complicated, interdependent demands. They pried her loose, with infinite patience, a pair of strong, hairy, male hands gently cupping her loins and hindquarters, pulling, releasing, in a pleasing tidal rhythm. When they got her out she held her breath, deliberately I have no doubt, so that they held her upside down and spanked her and generally made such a fuss that when I, the afterthought, emerged (on my hands and knees, I picture it, like an old ragbag crawling across a cartoon desert), I was given only cursory attention. And they told Mother, who briefly fought her way through the ether to get the vital stats, that she had a child of either sex: &'grave;A beautiful little girl''—holding Tubbo aloft like the Wimbledon Cup—&'grave;and a boy''—smiling in a kindly, commiserating sort of way, giving her just a glimpse of my homely little face, swaddling me like a hideous burn victim.

I was not a remarkably homely child. It was just the comparison. All things being relative.

This story, the one about my being a boy for the first half hour of my life, is probably true, unlike the other old wheeze. Mother told it often, but not with cruelty, and certainly not to aggrandize herself. Years later she was still outraged about their carelessness. &'grave;I don't want a boy,'' she had told them. &'grave;Now, now,'' they said. &'grave;I do not want a boy, and I have not made a boy, and that's all there is to that.'' The doctors, unwrapping me to prove their point, stared at her, she said, as though she were a witch and had changed my sex after the fact.

Mother favored Abigail in character, and me in sympathy. Mother admired me. That was nice.

Meet the Author

Jincy Willett is a writer and editor based in San Diego, CA. Her short stories have appeared in Playgirl, The Yale Review, and the Massachusetts Review.

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Winner of the National Book Award 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book started out promising but took a turn for the worst and never recovered. It snowballed out of control and this was one ride I had to get off -- I refused to even finish the book (and so did 4 other members of my book club; only 2 out of our whole group actually finished the book). The first few chapters were clever and funny, the rest was mind-numbing and boring. I got nothing out of this book and thought there was something wrong with me, but so many people thought it stunk I'm beginning to think that my feelings are in the majority. I didn't feel that there was some deep hidden meaning, like some readers suggest. Might I suggest using this book as a paper weight or to steady a wobbly table leg? Sorry to say, but that's about all it's good for.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you can superimpose an author's personality on any novel's protagonist, you may feel you are beginning to become acquainted with Jincy Willett, the architect of this story about celibate librarian Dorcas and her twin and polar opposite, the more than uninhibited Abigail. Critics have dubbed Willett's first novel as hilarious. But to recognize the humor, you have to be acquainted with New Englanders, Rhode Islanders in particular. The first half of this book is fun but the second half is more serious and a bit dark. The inviting and realistic conversations between Dorcas and her rapacious brother-in-law, the oily Conrad, leave the ordinary reader feeling ill-read, not to mention stupid. If Dorcas represents what goes on in Willett's head, it is impressive indeed. I want to re-read this one.