A Message in a Bottle

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 18, 2009

BLAME

By Michelle Huneven

Sarah Crichton. 291 pp. $25

In her earlier novels, Michelle Huneven, the respected California writer, has been concerned with matters of Alcoholics Anonymous, transgression and forgiveness, but most of all with the construction of ad hoc families, the putting together of disparate groups of people who can trust each other, meet each other's needs. It's an extremely topical idea, given the American divorce rate and the growing gap between generations. If your conventional family frays beyond recognition, certainly a wise thing to do is to put together another one. Sometimes it works and, of course, sometimes it doesn't.

"Blame" is set mainly in the towns of Pasadena and La CaƱada Flintridge, which, for those who don't know Southern California, were settlements established in the early 20th century by wealthy Easterners who came to the Edenic climate and verdant landscape to build elegant winter homes and loved the place so much that they stayed year-round. But many of those fine old families lost some of their money and their focus during the following decades. The decay of this once-grand, carefree society has made for some wonderful novels: "Pasadena" by David Ebershoff, "The Ruins of California" by Martha Sherrill, "The Anniversaries" by John Espey and, now, Huneven's "Blame."

Huneven focuses not just on the decay of individual families but on the fatal fraying of a painstakingly put-together society. These entitled communities have the Rose Bowl, sure, and the Valley Hunt Club, but their distinguishing landmark is the aptly named Suicide Bridge.

Death permeates "Blame." The beginning of this lovely novel shows us Joey, a lost little girl roaming an elegant hotel that houses an exclusive private club. Joey has been pulled out of school by her handsome, glamorous Uncle Brice, who has no idea what to do with her. Brice's sister, Joey's mother, is dying of cancer, but Brice is absolutely not up to the task of being responsible, caring, reasonable -- whatever the occasion might require. Instead, he shows up at the hotel with one of his girlfriends, Patsy, who plies Joey with drinks and pills and later on pierces Joey's ears, crookedly.

A few months later, Patsy wakes up in jail. She's already had a few DUIs; she prides herself on the fact that she's not only a young and brilliant college professor but also a dedicated party girl. Although she teases her jailers for being unnecessarily grim, she's in big trouble this time. It seems that she took her car out -- even though her license had been revoked -- and managed to run over a mother and daughter in her own driveway. So, yes, Patsy is pretty and smart, but now she's a murderer. Even with a diligent lawyer, she draws four years behind bars. The learned young professor and bon vivant has no idea how to live her new life.

Her fellow inmates are, by and large, mean-tempered or crazy. It takes a while for her to make any friends, and a longer time than that to be lured into her first AA meeting. At this point, almost the only thing that makes Patsy sadder than having killed two people (which she can't remember; she was in one of her many blackouts) is the idea of giving up drinking -- the whole, murky, golden party of it. But she goes to the meetings. Her visitors are few, except for the wildly handsome Brice, who turns out to be a loyal friend.

When she gets out -- fragile, changed and sober -- she falls in love with Cal, an impressive older man she meets at an AA meeting. Eventually, Patsy marries him, maybe because she craves security and meaning, maybe because she has a desperate need to atone for what she's done -- to be good.

She and Cal buy a large family home, suitable for taking in down-and-out drunks and sundry relatives who find themselves in trouble. Patsy succeeds; she does good in the world. But then Patsy learns the truth about the crime she has spent her life atoning for. And since years have passed, the handsome, wise, compassionate Cal has turned into a very old man. Patsy has had one family (her own), then the AA group, but now, maybe, another whole family is in order. How do you build lasting relationships when the world insists on crumbling around you? That's Huneven's theme here, and she does a lovely job with it.

See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.


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