I was already in the middle of Stephanie Kallos's new novel Sing Them Home when I got the uneasy feeling that what I was reading was sentimental claptrap.
Normally I don't really enjoy sentimental claptrap. Books like Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Apprentice (group of women quilts, shares life's challenges and joys) or any Jodi Picoults (take any topical tragedy, add simplistic characters, voila, instant bestseller!) make me break out in hives.
So what is it that makes a novel sentimental claptrap? (And yes, I am aware that anybody who enjoys chick flicks as much as I do doesn't have much of a high-culture leg to stand on. How did I spend last night? Why, watching Becoming Jane, about Jane Austen and with James McAvoy, of course!) The story of this novel is a bit circumspect; the three Jones children of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, have a reunion of sorts when their father dies; nearly thirty years earlier they had lost their mother (who was also suffering from MS) in a tornado, and her body was never recovered. In between chapters detailing their lives and the life of their father's longtime mistress, Viney (Alvina) Closs, Kallos intersperses portions of their mother Hope's diary.
Hm. Any novel with a character named something like "Viney Closs" might, in fact, be predisposed toward sentimentality. And yet? I liked it. Consider this (longish; sorry about that) interlude about how people grieve:
"'Also,' Mrs. Bauer continued, 'your grandmother is not going to hell. Believe this. And lazy she is not either. Nor Mama. They have the grief bacon.'
'Hmm.' Mrs. Bauer paused and looked away, thinking. She brought one of her red, veiny hands to her face, burying her thumb in the fleshy spot beneath her chin, fanning her fingers out over her mouth. She started tapping her fingers across her lips, slowly, one by one, as if she were playing piano...
'It is difficult, but I will try to explain,' Mrs. Bauer said finally. 'When someone we love very much dies, it makes us tired. Very tired. It makes us want to sleep and sleep, the way the animals do. You know the word? For what the bears in winter do?'
'Yes. Hibernate. It is the body's way, this tired. And like the bears, the body sometimes grows heavy, puts on...' Mrs. Bauer gestured as if she were dressing to go outside in the snow.
'Yes. Layers. To protect. To keep...' She gestured again, shrugging her shoulders and crossing her arms in front of her body as if she were wrapping herself up in a heavy blanket. 'It is hard to say, to translate to English. My family called it Kummerspeck. The grief bacon.'" (p. 281.)
Okay, it's sentimental. It also seemed about right. It made me want to call Kallos up and ask if she's lost someone close to her, and anytime I want to phone an author up and ask them some questions (a la Holden Caulfield), I feel that's a novel that I can enjoy without beating myself up about its sentimentality.*. And also? She thanks Joan Didion (for her "unwitting guidance in navigating the confounding, slippery landscape of grief") in her acknowledgments. I can get behind that.
*Although, frankly? The novel (at 540 pages) should be at least 100 pages shorter. My kingdom for a good editor!