The versatile, accomplished O’Nan follows up the ghostly doings of The Night Country (2003) with a quiet, realistic portrait of a woman waiting—for 28 years—for her husband to get out of jail.
Patty is 27 and pregnant when she learns that husband Tommy and his buddy Gary have committed a string of burglaries and are now being charged with murder after an old woman dies during their latest break-in. With seasoned skill, O’Nan spends the first third of the story (through the trial) delineating Patty’s situation. Relations are tense with her widowed mother, who has always disapproved of Tommy, and with older sister Shannon, who boasts a more affluent husband and lifestyle. Younger sister Eileen, her closest family ally, is broke, blue-collar, and a little raffish, like Patty and Tommy. In the trial, Gary turns state’s witness, Tommy gets 25 to life, and Patty is left to raise baby Casey as a single mother with few job skills. The subsequent scenes episodically sketch her life, front-loaded toward the early years of Tommy’s incarceration. Patty learns to cope with the monolithic prison system, at best indifferent to and often actively abusive of the convicts’ families. O’Nan focuses on Patty’s struggles and growth as she reluctantly moves in with her mother, endures a series of grinding, poorly paid jobs, and sees the scars Tommy’s absence inflicts on their slightly aloof son, who nonetheless matures into a decent, responsible young man. The deliberately low-key narrative has few dramatic events—Tommy’s abrupt transfer to a more distant prison is the most jarring—and even fewer discussions of people’s feelings. Patty simply lives her commitment to her marriage every day for 28 years, and we believe in it because we believe in the fully dimensional, ordinary but extraordinary character O’Nan has created. She deserves her (qualified) happy ending, long though it is in coming.
Another fine effort from a writer who in ten years has crafted nine novels dramatically different in tone and content but impressively consistent in their moral seriousness and artistic conviction.