In this astonishing first novel, 7-year-old, physically disabled Jess reviews her brief, tumultuous life from heaven via films provided by The Assembler, a supreme being who, for mysterious reasons, declined to give her thumbs, several bones, a whole heart and the gift of hearing.
For all her defects, hers is a miraculous childhood. With the loving support of her Catholic family, and following several surgeries, she is able to become a vital, expressive, delightful girl. But for all the care she receives from her mother, Kate, and father, Ford—and all of the doting of Joe Cassidy, Ford's bighearted post office co-worker, who was driven to drink by the loss of his wife and young son in an accident—she is darkly shadowed by fate. The events leading to her death are told with an exquisite attention to detail, emotional and physical. The subsequent narrative, which turns on a wrongful death suit filed by her parents against a cardiologist who failed to spot the vascular anomaly that caused Jess to stop breathing, unfolds with the tension of good detective fiction. Callously investigated for parental neglect, Ford and his pregnant wife are forced to attend parenting sessions along with child abusers and drug addicts who ridicule and assault them. They sign on with a personal injury firm in pursuit of justice, only to have the profit-minded lawyers violate Jess' memory by building a case that portrays her as helpless and pathetic. The Assembler, who has a sardonic streak, keeps Jess in the dark about where these posthumous events are leading, but she isn't afraid to call his number. The low-key conclusion is a bit of a letdown after all that has gone before, but Virginia-based author Wientzen, a pediatrician, imparts so much about the preciousness of life and the power of forgiveness that this is a minor shortcoming.
Boasting a fearlessly self-possessed child narrator, this is one of those books you stop what you're doing to finish, take a breath to ponder its profundities, and start again.