The Absent Woman
Holland House Books
First Edition: April 20, 2013
If there’s one demographic that is under-represented in fictional female leads, it’s middle-aged women with school-aged children. Add in to that a woman who does not have custody of the children in the demise of a marriage, and the list gets even smaller. How refreshing, then, to come across a book such as Marlene Lee‘s The Absent Woman, where the main character is just that: a middle-aged woman who relinquishes custody of her two sons – not because she’s an unfit mother, but because she’s the one who walked away. Not too far away, but away.
This is what Virginia Johnstone, age 34, walked away from: a husband with a successful career as a college professor. A Victorian house in a nice part of Seattle, two healthy and relatively happy boys, ages 9 and 10, who play soccer and touch football and baseball and bicker like normal siblings do. A job as a court reporter (something she went back to school for once she felt her life getting “flat”).
But the kids and the house and the job just weren’t enough. Although she was a fairly accomplished pianist, that just wasn’t enough. “I think I was created to do something wonderful, but I’m not doing it,” she tells her husband, before the divorce. He thinks she’s throwing her life away. She acknowledges that perhaps she is, but that she just can’t stay. So they divorce, she moves out. He keeps the kids and the house, she keeps the cottage in town that they owned as an investment. But even that isn’t enough. She needs to go farther.
So Virginia moves to the small town of Hilliard, about an hour away from Seattle, because it feels as if it is “on the edge of something.” She takes up residence in an old hotel (with red curtains – it’s the red curtains that draws here there) overlooking the Bar Fly Tavern, and beyond that, Puget Sound, with its marina and commercial fisher fleet, and a boatyard. But the rooms she will be inhabiting for the next few months are not empty – they are full of the belongings of an absent woman, who left suddenly with no explanation but who plans to come back by the start of summer. There is some sparse furniture and some clothing, knick-knacks and collections of starfish, shells, rocks and feathers. But in the makeshift studio are marvelous things of whimsy, left behind with no explanation or insight into the woman who placed them there:
Fabric cut-outs and paper constructions hung, flew, and fluttered all about us. I ducked under a piñata. Mermaids with yarn for hair draped themselves across one wall, wearing netting to cover their breasts and fins. They looked at me with cheerful, stitched eyes. Stretched against the width of the west wall, a piece of blue corduroy – gathered, smocked, and pocketed – held a collection of serendipitous cards, photographs, a red-brown maple leaf, a stone, a twig with dried berries still hanging on.
Also at the hotel, far down the hallway, past the room full of old mattresses, the cleaning closet, the doorway to the balcony that no longer existed, was the room full of bay windows where an old barroom piano had been stored, pushed up against a wall. It is at this piano and in these rooms full of another woman’s life, and in a quiet town on the edge of something, that Virginia waits for that small voice inside of her that will tell her what to do with her life.
It is when Virginia seeks out Twilah Chan, an older woman who teaches piano, that her tenure in Hilliard takes an interesting turn. Twilah is indeed a talented and challenging teacher, and in her Virginia finds a mentor and a friend. In the company of Twilah, her husband and adult son Greg, Virginia feels accepted, comfortable, stimulated. But there always seems to be something hidden in their talk, something that is hinted at but never voiced, something a bit sinister, a bit shameful, something still at play. It gets more complicated when Virginia and Greg enter into a romantic relationship, and the tension between mother and son – which neither is willing to explain – is revealed to be much deeper and sharper than she had originally suspected. And somehow, somehow, Virginia knows that it is the absent woman who is the key to all that is unsaid and unknown between her and her brilliant teacher, between her and her growing lover, between her and her questioning heart.
The Absent Woman contains some lovely writing. Author Marlene Lee’s descriptions of Hilliard and some of her inhabitants are captivating and clear; when she tells of the landscape, it immediately establishes a picture in the mind’s eye:
City streets turned to county highways. Wild grass beside ditches stood stiff with frost. In the early morning light the countryside rested under a white, brittle glaze; a ceramic casing. We touched hands. At any moment, with a clink and a chime, the world might break into pieces, each one bright and sharp and cold.
Unfortunately, this clarity does not follow through with the rest of the book. The story line, with its promising threads, never really develops into an engaging, arcing tale; instead, vignettes stand out with no real unifying attachment. The main characters often travel from one emotional extreme to another (sometimes within scant paragraphs), and the reader is hard pressed to determine if someone is caring or simply waiting for the next opportunity to be cruel. Intrigues are hinted at, betrayals are suggested, but what does develop is anticlimactic and, well, flat. One of the most repeated phrases in the narrative is, “mind your own business”, and often that command is followed. This may keep conflict from escalating, but it makes for dull reading.
The Absent Woman is a well meaning tale, and at varying times it can strike a chord with any of us on the far side of impetuous youth; it definitely has merit. Yet at the onset of the tale, Virginia says she wants to accomplish something, and wishes to strike out on her own “to see what I can do.” By the end of the book, despite the developments that do happen, we’re still waiting for her to accomplish either one.