It is difficult to write the Great American Novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald did a good job with The Great Gatsby, but that novel is in its dotage, requiring extensive sociology to appreciate fully. Jonathan Franzen engages society in the 21st century with brilliance and aplomb in Freedom,(http://www.facebook.com/notes/ronald-fischman/franzens-freedom-in-free-verse-a-review/10151435422153420 for my review in free verse) but derogates his working-class characters to the extent where they beat up or murder the members of the middle class. John Steinbeck is of a different era in The Grapes of Wrath, and therefore his formula of opening each chapter with something like a sermon feels like an anachronism, but at least his treatment of the working poor is ennobling, even though haunting. Now comes David D’Aguanno, writing under the pseudonym of David Dennis, with his entry into the fray, Why She Left Us.
The central family is headed by a mother, Jean, who seems more than anything to be a sex addict, with nondescript employment and a taste for nondescript men. Jean’s sister, a forty-year-old spinster, can’t get through a diary entry without mentioning how horrid men are because of her one adult relationship that ended badly. Jean’s three daughters, Monica, Betsy, and Ellen, are the real story here. At novel’s dawn, Monica is in an asylum, Ellen is in a wheelchair, and Betsy, well, that would be a real spoiler if I tell you what she is doing. None of the women have last names, even though the men, Carl Peters (Monica’s husband) and Wayne Brown (Senior and Junior, significantly) carry these badges of pedigree. Leave it to the sociologists to put this in its perspective; from my middle-to-working-class background, this rings true even today that women from low socioeconomic status backgrounds might find their identities through the men in their lives.
Each girl struggles to find fulfillment in their own way. Monica wants the ring and the fantasy, marrying Carl Peters, the Most Popular and Most Likely to Succeed from their high school class. Ellen inherited the propensity for sexual addiction, and Betsy, who writes with literary flair that befits someone whose route to the middle class will come through her apprenticeship at the library, seeks true, holy, passionate love. Though she finds everything she prays for in the arms of illiterate but basically noble Wayne Brown Jr., her outcome is the darkest of all the characters.
D’Aguanno’s gift to the literary world is that he dignifies and honors the struggles, travails, and passions of these humble people for whom college attendance would be like completing a marathon for most of us. There is no sermon anywhere in here. Even the most spiteful act is understood; lust is accepted, and when coupled with a rush of spirit, is honored. Only one character shows ill throughout, and that is Carl Peters, who lives in resentment that the world hasn’t given him his every whim. Carl shows a horrid dark side, which will allow this book to be used as a study in psychopathy. However, even Carl’s malevolence evolves over the course of the book.
Why She Left Us is a dramatic book. I don’t envision it on the silver screen, but I can imagine an effective staging of the book as theater. A director would have to manage the parallel timelines between the crucial summer of 1985 and its grim aftermath in 1986. The author crafted the ’85 and ’86 scenes with absolute precision. At 428 pages, this qualifies on some Goodreads lists as a “big book,” and I found that it required work to get through. However, I found the characters accompanying me through my work day, reacting to events in my own life. The absolute surprise at the end wouldn’t be enough if the characters weren’t so lovingly treated, so don’t read this like a whodunit. But if you want to experience real life, with real emotions and a unique take on the eternal question of love, then you should make sure that Why She Left Us is part of your world.