Life Events

Karolina Waclawiak. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-90904-8

Waclawiak pivots from the coastal Connecticut setting of The Invaders for a bleak, atmospheric foray through the deserts and valleys around Los Angeles. Thirty-seven-year-old Evelyn, stagnant in a failing marriage, proceeds through a series of cyclical patterns that hold her in limbo, such as driving toward the Eastern Sierras, away from her husband, only to return to make dinner for him, then drink alone at home—“not to wait for him exactly, and not to get drunk exactly.” While battling her insomnia with a weed pen and Xanax, she applies for a training program on “how to help other people die” and becomes a death doula. Waclawiak follows Evelyn into the worlds of three of Evelyn’s clients: Daphne, a 64-year-old cancer patient with an overexcited cocker spaniel; Lawrence, a former producer of porn films who’s lost all hope; and Daniel, a 42-year-old agoraphobe with cirrhosis. While the job initially gives Evelyn a sense of purpose, she tends to break a company rule against “making the death about yourself”—she worries about what Daphne thinks of her, and wears lipstick to get attention from a male coworker. Waclawiak maintains a gloomy tone through well-observed details of the landscape (“flat, dusty land dotted with wind-worn white crosses jutting out a different mile markers along the road, signifying people who didn’t make it home”), which mixes well with Evelyn’s wry irreverence. This doesn’t promise answers, nor does it give any, and it’s better for it. (July)