Don't judge these two Oregon Book Award finalists by their covers
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
TWENTY QUESTIONS, fiction by Alison Clement. Atria Books, 2006. Hardcover, $23.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, fiction by Robert Hill. Graywolf Press, 2006. Hardcover, $20.
Don't be fooled — by which I mean put off — by the cover for Alison Clement's Twenty Questions, which makes it look like a mediocre thriller, or by the summary on the back cover of Robert Hill's When All Is Said and Done, which makes the book sound downright ordinary. Neither of these novels, both finalists for this year's Oregon Book Award for fiction (the Ken Kesey Award for the Novel, to give it its proper name) are what they appear to be. With the third finalist, Monica Drake's entrancing, peculiar Clown Girl (reviewed in EW in March), these books make up a small but strong competitive field of uncommon stories. They share a particularly intimate, introspective quality that allows a reader to sink slowly through the story's layers, drifting down and along a swift, sure current of narrative.
Twenty Questions is set in Corvallis; the town is never named, but references to the university, Portland and Eugene all make it clear where the story tales place. June Duvall, a cook at a poor elementary school, doesn't accept a ride one day from a student's father. The next woman to get into his car is found dead. June, a kind, mild woman in her early 30s, can't let this thought go. Her husband Bill, a chef, tells her she's going off the deep end, and as June inserts herself into the lives of the dead woman's daughter and brother, it's easy to see where Bill's coming from. But Clement handles June's strange actions gracefully; her interior life is in tumult, her decisions flawed, but never to the point of clumsiness, never too far over the edge.
What June finds as she tries to help inverts her life, dragging long-forgotten pieces of herself into the open. She's a somewhat dreamy character, observant, attuned to small shifts in her immediate atmosphere, and as she describes her garden or contemplates the faithlessness of memory, she reveals a life unseen, so quiet and contained that to reshape it is far less difficult than expected.
When All Is Said and Done takes place in the suburbs of New York City — though not Charmington, the small town that main character Myrmy, an advertising copywriter, is interested in at first. The real estate agent doesn't think it's right for the Jewish woman and her family. It's the early 1960s, and settled gently in with Myrmy's furs, her veteran husband, her difficult pregnancies and her income is a thread of bigotry and a subtle awareness of class. First-time novelist Hill's story of a marriage is told in turns by Myrmy and her husband Dan, their words and their characters side by side, page by page, alternating. What gives their story such life is Hill's tumultuous, engrossing prose, his long sentences and the clarity of voice he gives these two characters. His is the sort of book with which you find yourself wanting to write down passages of particular grace — only to realize that alone, they appear unremarkable. It's in context of this affecting book that each scene is so striking, that each year seems vivid even though time passes at a hearty clip through the story's 220 pages. This is a book about great compassion living side by side with selfishness; of the awareness of being just different enough from your neighbors, your friends, your town, to feel outside and inside at once. And above all, it's a love story, one complicated with careers and children and growth and stagnancy: completely mundane and completely extraordinary.
BOOK NOTES: Susan Patron reads from her Newbery Medal-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, 7 pm 10/12, Powell's, Beaverton. Ursula K. LeGuin reads, 7 pm 10/13, Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Auditorium, Newport. $10. David Jones and Derk Schmidt of The Hermans discuss The Hermans: Stalking America and play a few songs, 6 pm 10/13, Barnes & Noble. Zine Eugene! Noon-3:30 pm 10/14, Books Without Borders. Kathleen Dean Moore and Duane Ackerson read, 7 pm 10/16, Downtown Library. Orhan Pamuk speaks, 7:30 pm 10/16, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. $26. Patrick Carman reads from Into the Mist, 6:30 pm 10/18, Barnes & Noble.