BLAME by Michelle Huneven

Book Quote:

“She stood before the court and touched the dark tumult, the awful thumps and booms, bodies on the ground, a wheeling of stars; with such images came the inevitable, engulfing nausea of knowing it could never be undone.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 27, 2009)

Michelle Huneven’s new novel, Blame, has one of the best prologues to come along in a long time. Here, we are introduced to Joey Hawthorne, a preteen struggling with the impending death of her mother to breast cancer. One day tall, handsome uncle Brice shows up to pick her up from summer typing lessons and she immediately suspects something is wrong—her mother will die shortly thereafter.T hrough Brice, Joey is introduced to his temperamental girlfriend, Patsy MacLemoore. Patsy is drunk and in an attempt at some sisterly bonding, makes a failed attempt at piercing Joey’s ears. This beautiful chapter introduces us not just to the brash Patsy but gives us a look at how Joey views both her and the events of that surreal night. Years later, the very same Joey will play a crucial role in Patsy’s life—at that point one can’t help but revisit this chapter and admire how well the author, Michelle Huneven, has tied the different story elements together.

Patsy MacLemoore occupies center stage from the second chapter on. At the outset, she wakes up from an alcoholic stupor and finds that in an act of drunk driving, she has hit and killed a mother and daughter—two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were hanging around on her driveway. “Patsy pictured them again and again, as if they were borne on a conveyor belt from some charred storehouse of memory,” Huneven writes. Shortly thereafter Patsy is sentenced to years in prison and spends her time going through the daily grind. Interestingly enough, she observes that prison doesn’t really allow you the mental space for atonement—you focus on what it takes to make it clean through to the other side.

And get out she does. Years after she is done with prison, (understandably) the accident haunts Patsy and affects her every decision either directly or in more subtle ways.

A Berkeley graduate, Patsy is smart and incredibly bright—she goes back to her job as professor of history at a small college in California, after her release. As part of her probation, she is forced to join AA. She has decided anyway, that getting sober would be a necessary part of her road to redemption. Educated people have the most difficult time getting sober, an ex-prison mate, Gloria, tells Patsy and she is right. Patsy doesn’t care much for the rituals at AA. She “recoiled at the loser litanies and simplistic religiosity,” Huneven writes. Yet it is through AA that she forms a loosely knit community of friends—her ex-boyfriend Brice turns out to be gay and his partner, young Gilles, is a fellow AA ex-addict. Huneven does a masterful job here at portraying the friendship between the two.

Eventually, as Patsy slowly tries to make some sense of her life, she meets Cal Sharp—a much-revered man at AA. Once an addict himself, Cal is a successful, retired businessman who now mentors other addicts and gets them on the road to recovery. While she doesn’t fall desperately in love with him, nevertheless, in Cal, Patsy sees someone she could spend the rest of her life with. They get married and despite the fact that she later meets a brilliant researcher her age whom she develops a deep affection toward, Patsy stays true to the marriage. She even puts up with an extremely bossy stepdaughter who gradually takes over the house with her own family.

Throughout you can see the impact the accident, which happened 20 years ago, has on Patsy’s life. She even decides against having kids of her own knowing that she has killed another’s. This way, when people look at her life, they’ll at least know that she wasn’t callous, she figures. “She’d never considered herself thoughtless or immoral. Fun, a little hell-bent, maybe, impulsive, but always amusing. And basically a good person,” Huneven writes describing Patsy’s feelings about herself. “Now, seeing the miles driven drunk, the pranks, the commitments ignored, the marriages violated, and her obliviousness throughout, she seemed despicable.” You empathize so much with Patsy all throughout precisely because she—one who is so gifted and talented—is so harsh on herself. Yes, she makes an awful, tragic mistake but it is to Huneven’s enormous credit that Patsy doesn’t come across as a mere caricature, a drunken lunatic, but as someone who is human and fragile coming to terms with her checkered past.

Much later, she comes across some information that puts the accident and therefore her life in a new light. Here too, reactions of family and close friends are simply brilliantly done.

Michelle Huneven’s Blame is a masterpiece of character study—through a narrative arc over 20 years she shows the gradual transformation not just of Patsy MacLemoore but of a whole host of associated characters, including that of little Joey Hawthorne.

When visiting her therapist once, Patsy explains why she visits every week: “Guilt. I want to learn how to live with it,” she points out. When everyone else including the victim’s husband Mark Parnham has forgiven Patsy, she has not learned how to forgive herself. Blame superbly shows just how many lives can be permanently crippled in the blink of an eye: the victims of a tragic accident, for sure, but also the perpetrator who can spend a lifetime making amends.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 120 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Michelle Huneven
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More explorations of blame and guilt:

Read our review of:


September 27, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.