Surprises and sucker punches keep things lively in this latest from Coomer (Apologizing to Dogs, 1999, etc.), a tale of emotional upheavals in a far-flung family about to be flung farther.
The family members converge on their original home in Fort Worth, Texas, for a funeral. Grandma Hutton has died at 89, and the bad-tempered old woman will be missed only by Aunt Edna, the daughter who cared for her devotedly for 22 years. This is Aunt Edna’s story, narrated by her niece Sarah. Besides working at an elementary school as cafeteria manager, Edna has found time to paint chairs, nothing but chairs (and they will eventually sell for megabucks). The funeral is a splendid set-piece, with Sarah’s satirical eye panning the love and guilt, bullying and bitchiness that make up family life. She has her own ax to grind: husband Sam has been cheating on her. Grandma’s will is the dramatic high point: she wants her ashes scattered in Scotland. Scotland! Edna has never even been out of state but gamely volunteers to go; Sarah will accompany her (she needs a respite from Sam). Before they leave, taking Grandpa’s ashes too, Edna has a surprise of her own: she is going to marry James Laurent, an elderly blind black man who canes chairs. The scenes of these aging lovebirds have a haunting delicacy, but then it’s off to Scotland, where the ashes are spread at three different sites, and the satirical edge gives way to Edna’s grief and Sarah’s agonizing over Sam. The mood becomes even more somber with Edna’s revelation that she’s dying from pancreatic cancer. The final section, back in Fort Worth, feels rushed: there’s Edna’s tenderly offbeat wedding to James, a further revelation (this time to the police) about Grandma’s death, and then Edna’s own demise.
Coomer’s canvas is too crowded. He does Scotland proud, but at the expense of the family rearranging itself back home—which is where the novel lives. Still, an enjoyable read, without a dull page.