Book Quote:

“The life around us had the thin, flimsy quality of a stage set, the walls and furniture and props made of the cheapest, lightest materials. We lived a life whose only certainty was that it would change—just when we’d settled in, just when we’d gotten comfortable, the lights would go down and the scene would be cleared away.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (JUL 19, 2011)

The premise—we are shaped by our interactions with others—sounds like something from a school summer writing assignment and is almost too bland to be worked with. But if truly great writing creates marvels from almost nothing, then Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted is one such wonder.

At the outset, it should be made clear that despite its title, this novel is far from depressing. The narrator, Mary Murphy, remembers her coming of age in small-town America in a family full of misfits. Through elegies narrated in the second person to five different people, Mary tells us the story of her life.

“We were a family of bad citizens,” Mary says when remembering her single, womanizing uncle Michael, “Drunk drivers and tax evaders, people who parked in handicapped spaces and failed to return shopping carts to their collection stands.” Despite his many failings, that Michael was one of the few stabilizing forces in Mary’s girlhood, is proof of the neglect she suffered at the hands of her mother. Mother was too busy living in denial that she had two girls (Mary and her sister, Malinda) and spent time watching movies that produced “unreasonable expectations about men, romance, and the tendency for wealth and good fortune to bestow themselves by happenstance on the world’s most beautiful people.” When Mom slowly realizes that good fortune does not automatically bestow itself on Liz Taylor look-alikes, she comes undone and takes the girls through a series of her failed marriages. By the time the last one to a Southern minister rolls around, the girls have long since given up on their mother as a source of emotional comfort.

It is through one of Mom’s many marriages that Mary’s path crosses Walter’s. Walter is a decent and suave black man who encourages Mary to look beyond the confines of the crumbling town in which she grows up. Eventually Mary moves on to college and meets a roommate who also has a profound influence on her.

Despite all the trials she goes through, Mary emerges with some level of stability at the end—a few steps short of triumphant. One hesitates to use the word “redemption” because it is overused so much these days, but this is one story of redemption that is done just beautifully. The daughter of a poet, Christine Hodgen’s prose is also spare and lyrical. There are many instances when the writing just blows you away. Here is one such: “Love—whatever else it might or might not be—was fleeting. Love stormed into your life and occupied it, it took over every corner of your soul, made itself comfortable, made itself wanted, then treasured, then necessary, love did all of this and then it did next the only thing it had left to do, it retreated, it vanished, it left no trace of itself. Love was horrifying.”

Hodgen’s metaphors—“The woman had white meringue-like hair that stood up in peaks”—are equally tremendous. Even if the prose is economical, Hodgen can really set up a sense of place. The chapter set in Maine is a case in point.

One of the many creative aspects of the novel is the way in which it is laid out—not linearly but like a puzzle that slowly clicks into place. Even better, there’s not an ounce of the saccharine rah-rah “you go girl” bravado that could easily have percolated into these pages. Hodgen focuses on bruised lives without a trace of melodrama and in doing so she has created a gem of a novel.

As kids, Mary and Malinda loved watching Tom and Jerry cartoons on television. “In that world, which we loved, characters suffered one fatal blow after another and yet sprang up, every time, unharmed,” Mary recalls. Real life unfortunately is never that simple but Hodgen has mined its complexities to wonderful effect. Elegies for the Brokenhearted makes for absolutely compelling storytelling.

When the final piece in the book fits in just so, we come away with a wonderful portrait of a young woman who is shaped by life’s vicissitudes just like the rest of us. What’s different about Mary Murphy is that she is the person she is, not because of the people around her but in spite of them.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (July 18, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Christie Hodgen
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


July 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, y Award Winning Author

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