Monday, July 2, 2012

The Living End by Lisa Samson

I consider myself open-minded. My reading habits embrace all genres and a broad variety of authors. But a writer's command of the language is my primary concern. Diction appeals to me more than a particular faith or philosophy. So when a friend gave me a novel by a Christian writer I wasn’t familiar with, I set the book aside. Not that I’m opposed to reading fiction that affirms my faith, but the Christian market, like a lot of genre-based markets, frequently focuses on the creed at the expense of the writing quality. The good stuff is so rare I generally don’t bother. Turns out my reluctance was misplaced. The writing quality was actually pretty good. It was just about everything else I had problems with. 

Samson’s novel is a first person perspective of the protagonist Pearly Laurel, a woman in her mid 50s who never had kids. As the novel opens, her husband has suffered a massive stroke. He dies shortly thereafter and Pearly is so inconsolable, she entrusts the funeral arrangements to a close friend and then flees the familiar environs of their life together to take up shelter in their vacation home elsewhere. This bothered me as a reader and did nothing to help me empathize with Pearly.

Her deceased husband Joey was a devout Christian. Pearly wasn’t even religious, much less devout. The reason Pearly gives for the couple marrying in the first place is that her husband didn’t really subscribe to that whole ‘be not unequally yoked’ verse in the Bible. For those not familiar, as Christians (and I’d extend this to political affiliations, personal philosophies, and health club memberships), if your spouse-to-be takes exception to views or beliefs that you not only cherish but consider paramount to moral, wholesome living, you might not want to tie the knot. After all, marriage is a bond, a union that transcends a physical coupling or a legal document. It’s about a meeting of both the heart and the mind. Not to say all couples share a passion for cats or football, but there’s a covenant made, an intimate, personal expression of giving oneself to another that is supposed to epitomize things like loyalty, trust, commitment, and above all love. So say I, a celebrated bachelor.

After Joey’s death, Pearly rummages through his things and discovers his journal. Reading it, she learns that her indifference toward his religion forced him to keep his personal insights and observations to himself. This angers her but shames her somewhat as well. She also finds a bucket list he’d made and decides to fulfill it. After which time, she tells the reader, she’ll commit suicide since she can’t bear to go on without Joey in her life.

This struck me as odd. First, she rejects the faith the man she loves above all else embraces. Second, so distraught over his passing, she flees their home and refuses to attend the funeral (doesn’t visit his gravesite until toward the end of the novel). Third, though wracked by guilty feelings for disavowing his cherished faith she, rather than choosing to relish what joys the two had together, decides to end her own life … but not before completing his bucket list. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand women, but Pearly’s motivations struck me as wildly contradictory. I found it impossible to root for her.

Over the course of the novel, thanks in part to Joey’s journal, Pearly learns about other people Joey had a positive influence on, some of whom Pearly had never met. After eventually meeting and befriending one such person, Pearly begins to examine her past apathy over her husband’s faith. She grows more comfortable with the precepts and virtues Joey’s faith espouses. Yet meanwhile her decision to kill herself or find a professional to aid her with an assisted suicide doesn’t change.

One of Pearly’s cousins is on dialysis and needs a kidney transplant. Without telling her cousin that she, Pearly, has only one working kidney, Pearly offers to supply her cousin with one of hers. The cousin has reservations but eventually accepts. Pearly contacts a doctor in Switzerland to perform the operation and, unbeknownst to her cousin, later have him administer a dose of something Pearly can ingest to ease her own passing.

The last 20 pages of this 300 page novel are heart-wrenching and a worthy pay-off. However, I couldn’t buy the idea that this woman would’ve resisted her husband’s faith throughout the 35 years of their marriage. For one, she’s intellectually plain for lack of a better description. Had she been an academic type who refused religion based on some modern idea about supposed superstitions or irrational convictions, I’d understand. Had she resisted on some proposed moral grounds – namely the notion that given the religion's long history of abuses or misconduct, she felt the faith had done more harm than good or some such rot, again, I could understand. Or what about the more common and generally denied emotionally charged objections that prevents other non-believers from converting? For example, was Pearly bitter about her past? Did she blame God for obstacles in her youth? Had she considered these pains personal slights directed at her from Providence?

The only thing that comes close is Pearly’s account of her brother. If memory serves me, he suffered from a variant of elephantitis. She tells us her brother was ridiculed and ultimately scorned by both his peers and, to some degree, their father. But again, Pearly doesn’t seem bitter over this. Just the standard fare of regret, pain, and remembered frustrations one would associate with a family braving these hardships. As a result, I couldn’t believe her refusal to convert throughout her marriage to Joey was genuine.

Yes, the story is written first person from Pearly’s point of view, but this shouldn’t prevent Samson from exposing Pearly’s real reasons for rejecting her husband’s faith, assuming there were any. For those who’ve read Nabokov’s Pale Fire or P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie & Jeeves stories, you know first person accounts don’t prevent the protagonist from unwittingly revealing what he might otherwise prefer to keep secret.
On the up side, the writing is as smooth as samite. Plain prose throughout. This isn’t a left-handed compliment, either. Simple, clear writing is hard to achieve. You’ll race through the story faster than a movie version could render it on screen. I just wished as much attention had been devoted to the characters, particularly the protagonist’s motivations. I’ll close with my favorite quote from the book. Pearly remembering her husband:

But there were times when he’d sit out on the deck overlooking the gardens, and he’d stare at the sliver of water visible through the next block of houses, and the sun would penetrate the leaves like strips of bridal veil, and he’d look as though he weren’t really there at all.

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