Hodgen (Hello, I Must Be Going, 2006, etc.) has structured this novel as a series of “elegies” that a young woman addresses to five major, if occasionally inadvertent influences in her life.
The first, most deeply felt elegy—to Mary Murphy’s Uncle Michael (1952-89)—describes Mary’s less-than-stable New England childhood in the 1970s and ’80s. When her strikingly beautiful mother Margaret, who changes men frequently, lets Michael move in between husbands, he takes on an outsized fatherly role in Mary’s life. But when he moves away, he slips out of Mary and her family’s life all too easily and permanently. In this section, Hodgen creates several fully realized, heartbreaking histories in small, indelible strokes. The subsequent elegies lack the same impact. Elwood LePoer (1971-90) is a classmate of Mary’s before he drops out of high school to work on cars and dies at 19 in a freak accident. He is a loser whom Mary barely knows. His importance is a matter of coincidence—his unwillingness to give Mary’s sister Malinda a ride while she is hitchhiking with Mary and Margaret causes Margaret to meet her fourth husband, the saintly black man Walter, who becomes Mary’s mentor. Carson Washington (1972-93) is Mary’s roommate during her freshman year in college. The girls bond as outsiders on scholarship. The fourth elegy also concerns a person Mary knows only briefly. James Butler (1952-96) is a Juilliard-trained piano player whom Mary meets in Maine while looking for Malinda, who has disappeared. He hides his kindness behind his wit and makes sure Mary attends grad school. When he dies of AIDS, she inherits his musical compositions. In the final elegy, for Margaret, Mary ends up adopting Malinda’s abandoned son and making peace with her much-married mother before Margaret’s death.
The voice is remarkable, but there is too much padding of what is a rather slight story.