Though her objectives are often transparent, Muske-Dukes’s latest, if a bit macabre, is an affecting tale of a guilt-haunted man and woman who learn to accept the inevitable presence of death in life.
The story, Minneapolis-set, moves between past and present as the two protagonists learn age-old lessons. Fortyish Boyd Schaeffer, a widow and the mother of preschool daughter Freddy, is an obstetrician who stopped practicing when a woman she was performing a late abortion on died. Will Youngren, also known teasingly as Dr. Death, runs an undertaking business. He’s 40, unmarried, and can cope with most deaths except those of babies and young children. Will and Boyd meet when she comes to make the arrangements for the funeral of her husband Russell, who has died of an apparent heart attack while playing tennis. Both are obsessed with the dead: Boyd not only has never forgotten the fatal abortion, but she now feels responsible for Russell’s death as well. The day before he died, they had quarreled, and she had asked him to do her a favor and “die.” And Will still feels responsible for not having saved his twin sister Signe, whose sled careened into a tree when they were 14. As Boyd, troubled by Russell’s seemingly continued presence (she keeps finding notes he wrote for her) starts practicing medicine again and tries to help daughter Freddy accept Russell’s death, she discovers the real cause behind it. There are some other bittersweet truths that emerge about Russell, a charming, wealthy man and a liar—all, as it turns out, smoke and mirrors. And when Will tells her about Signe, both find opportunities to exorcise their ghosts and move on.
An intelligent, sometimes luminous take on a distressing subject.