SECONDHAND SMOKE by Patty Friedmann


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With a bold beginning and a wet fizzle at the end, Friedmann’s frustrating fourth (after Odds, 2000, etc.) is a tragiccomic jumble of frayed family nerves as a 70-year-old woman deals with the death of her husband and the loss of her house, while her kids try to decide how much they want to help.

As the story opens, Jerusha’s cancer-ridden mate is dying at home in New Orleans, and the response of their two children is classic: Wilson the professor flies down immediately from Chicago, helping out as best he can while knowing that his wife resents him for leaving her alone with the kids; Zib the Winn-Dixie assistant manager refuses to even acknowledge her father is sick until he’s dead. While Wilson goes home to resume his life, Zib falls apart. Jerusha, after burying her husband at Arlington National Cemetery and being an unwilling partner to Zib’s antics (she borrows Mom’s car to get laid by a stranger she tails on the Beltway), returns home only to inadvertently blow it up after one of her ritual altercations with her slut of a neighbor. Having no house insurance, no money, and being too proud to call for help, she takes to the streets with her neighbor’s fat but precocious ten-year-old son, Dustin. The dark comedy lacing the plot to this point leaches away as Wilson and Zib make muddled efforts to rescue her: Zib goes on a bender with Dustin’s mom, her childhood friend, who winds up in a terminal hepatic coma, while Wilson, tipped off about Jerusha’s whereabouts, finds her sleeping in the bushes next to the city library and brings her to Chicago, to deal with his Jewish wife and in-laws and the news that he’s become a Jew himself. Fortunately, she’s able to take her Chihuahua and beat it back to New Orleans.

All’s well that ends well, maybe, but the route this tale takes to get there has some distinctly unpleasant turns.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 1-58243-217-1
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2002


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