The Absent Woman
by Marlene Lee
It must be said from the start, this is a challenging read, a novel that requires the reader to pace along with it instead of rushing through it. Very little actually happens in this book – at least on the surface. Emotionally, The Absent Woman is the equivalent of a tornado, difficult to lay aside despite – or maybe because of – its low-key language. This is a book about a mother who abandons her children because she has to find something to fill the expanding void inside of her. It is also about a mother who is so dependent on her adult child that she is incapable of fully letting go, alternating between leaping to the beloved child’s defence and cruel, heartless put-downs. Most of all, it is a poetic description of a woman who breaks away from her everyday existence, trying to find real meaning and passion in her life.
It is always very controversial to write about women who abandon their children. Somehow, the general perception is that good mothers never set themselves before the needs of their offspring. Virginia in The Absent Woman is therefore drowning in guilt when she takes the drastic step to divorce her husband and start life anew – on her own. Her sons remain with their father, and in an interesting reversal of gender roles it is Virginia who is the absentee parent, seeing her boys every other weekend. Until she decides to go one step further and leave town altogether, driven by an urge to do something – anything – with her life.
So far into the story, I must admit to finding it difficult to relate to Virginia. Adults – and especially parents – cannot allow themselves the luxury of being quite so indulgent. To do something as drastic as moving to a new town – even if only temporarily – because your life feels “flat” is irresponsible. Virginia agrees, but has no choice. She must find purpose and meaning before she implodes. How she expects to find this in a run-down hotel in Hilliard, a sad little town an hour or so from Seattle, is initially something of a mystery – to Virginia as well.
As the story progresses, Ms Lee subtly hints to the fact that Virginia herself was an abandoned child, that maybe because of this Virginia rushed into adulthood, trying to compensate for the loss of her mother by quickly recreating her own version of Happy Families, complete with successful husband and two sons. The successful husband, however, is rather self-centred and priggish. Virginia’s life rapidly shrinks to revolve around her sons, but this is simply not enough – she wants more out of life.
In Hilliard, Virginia finds a piano teacher. She has been taking lessons for some years, but it is with Twilah Chan that Virginia really starts to develop, finding solace in her music. Ms Lee describes Virginia’s relationship to Beethoven, to Bach, to Schubert, in a way that makes me regret not having taken my piano lessons seriously. To me, they were a chore; to Virginia, playing the piano is a way to survive.
Through Twilah, Virginia gets to know Twilah’s blacksmith son, Greg, and Twilah’s rather enigmatic husband, Arturo Chan. Twilah’s and Greg’s relationship is a toothy, difficult thing. The mother cannot resist belittling her son for being “only” a blacksmith, Greg cannot help always trying to get his mother’s approval. Virginia is drawn into this odd, tortuous dance when she initiates a relationship with Greg, and suddenly Twilah morphs from piano teacher extraordinaire to jealous crone – a cruel woman who delivers stinging remarks with the precision of a sharp-shooter.
The Twilah/Greg relationship serves as an interesting counterpoint to Virginia’s complicated – but basically healthy – relationship with her own two sons. Where Twilah has never allowed Greg to fully sever the umbilical cord, Virginia has perhaps severed it too soon, but at least she will never be in a position to verbally disembowel her sons like Twilah does.
Ms Lee has created a cast of complex, credible characters. Virginia, Twilah, Greg, Virginia’s ex-husband – they’re like most of us, people with flaws and qualities, people struggling to get their lives together. Sometimes, the characters react in ways that grate on me, and yes, there are moments when I intensely dislike Twilah, when I am tempted to kick Greg’s sorry butt, but Ms Lee is not out to judge; she is simply painting people as they are: complex, irrational and vulnerable.
There are no easy solutions to life. What we want and what we get are two entirely different things, but as Ms Lee demonstrates in The Absent Woman, it is up to us to make the best of what we have, rather than wasting our lives yearning for what we would have liked to have. Ultimately, life is about compromise – but also about having the guts to invest in what is important to us.
Ms Lee has written a thought-provoking novel about choices in life. At times it is a tad too slow, but what this novel loses in pace it makes up for in language, every word utilised to perfection. Rarely have I read prose that flows so like poetry – or maybe it is music I am hearing?
About the author
Marlene Lee has worked as a teacher, court reporter and writer. While The Absent Woman is her first novel, she has published numerous stories, poems and essays. At present, she teaches writing at the University of Missouri. You can find out more about Marlene at marlenelee.wordpress.com. The Absent Woman is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
Anna Belfrage is the author of five published books, all part of The Graham Saga. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his time-travelling wife, Alex Lind. Anna can be found on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and on her website. If you would like Anna to review your book, please see our submissions tab above.