Monday, December 30, 2013

Go Along for the Ride

Backseat Saints
by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Grand Central Publishing
3 Out of 5 Stars

To the outside world, Ro Grandee seems to have a good life: she's a beautiful woman married to a good looking and attentive husband from a well-respected family in Amarillo, Texas. However, after an airport gypsy tells Ro that she must kill her husband, we learn that Ro's picture perfect life is a facade that hides a marriage full of fear, violence, and abuse. Now, armed with only her pawpy's old gun, Ro plans her husband's murder, but will she be able to pull the trigger?

Backseat Saints begins with a bang and, unfortunately, ends with a whimper.

There's a lot to like here and, for the most part, I enjoyed the book. Joshilyn Jackson writes with wit and honesty about the South and its people (her dialogue is some of the best I've read), and to balance the darkness of spousal abuse with the humor of daily life is quite a feat.

What I appreciate the most about the book is that Ro never becomes a blank cipher for spousal abuse; many books of this nature focus on the violence and the abused remains a flat character with no real dimensions beyond the relationship to the abuse. Told from the first person point of view, Ro reveals the two halves of her personality. There's Ro Grandee, the lovely, submissive housewife, and then there's Rose Mae Lolley, the small town girl from Alabama who came to believe that love should be tempered by pain when her mother leaves and her father begins physically taking his anger out on Rose. Ro maintains her own personality (although secreted away in interior monologue that is Rose Mae Lolley's voice) despite being dominated by her husband, Thom. Her fear and her attraction to Thom become palpable and we see her foolishly clinging to hope in the good periods when he resolves to control his temper, and we see her anguish when he falls into familiar patterns. Like a meteorologist, Ro can predict the storm of his anger building but lacks the power to take shelter. While it's easy for those of us who have never been in an abusive relationship to become frustrated with her for her seeming refusal to leave him, Jackson does a good job of demonstrating how running is a luxury afforded to those with power. And Ro has been stripped of all power--financial, social, personal--by Thom, who has created a life that cages Ro in dependence upon him.

The novel, however, is problematic in two ways. The first is Ro's Catholicism, which seems surface at best and only to exist so that the novel could be given the title of Backseat Saints. The "saints" of the title are seldom brought into the narrative and never serve to move the plot forward. Entire chapters will pass and then a definite sense of "oops, haven't mentioned a saint in a while" crops up, a saint's name is dropped, and the narrative moves on--conspicuously saint-less.

The second issue is Ro's insistence on finding her ex-boyfriend from high school in the hopes that she can convince him to kill Thom. This plot line exists so Backseat Saints can dovetail with Jackson's novel, gods in Alabama (my personal favorite), which opens with Ro as a minor character appearing on the doorstep of Arlene Fleet's apartment in Chicago, demanding to know where her high school boyfriend is. The rest of gods is about Arlene making peace with a past she left behind in Alabama and Ro pretty much disappears as a character. I get that it was that particular character that inspired Jackson to write Saints, but instead of this segue feeling organic, it's been shoehorned in and makes for a strange, disjointed narrative. It also seems implausible that Ro would take such a risk, knowing the reaction her husband will have upon finding out she's been to Chicago without him. To have made Ro a character independent of gods would have tightened the narrative and cut some of the wasted length other reviewers have noted.

Despite these flaws, Backseat Saints has some lovely writing and I enjoyed the time spent with such complicated, flawed characters.  

No comments:

Post a Comment