The Mourners' Bench

Susan Dodd, Author William Morrow & Company $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-688-15799-9
In her previous work, Dodd's most successful characters have been people of simple backgrounds living obscure lives. She depicted even the eponymous protagonist of Mawmaw, the mother of the notorious James boys, as a strong and stoic backwoods matriarch. She sets most of this new novel near Dismal Swamp, N.C., the home of Leandra, a young woman who fixes broken dolls, which she lines up on a (highly symbolic) mourner's bench in her one-room shack. Juxtaposed to that provincial community is the sophisticated background of 54-year-old Wim Cantwell, a teacher at an elite Massachusetts prep school. Wim and Leandra haven't seen each other since a sexual tryst 10 years earlier, after which they discovered that Pammy Jo, Leandra's sister and Wim's wife, had committed suicide. Now Wim comes to Leandra's cabin to spend his last days before he succumbs to a brain tumor. Dodd recounts this doomed love story in the alternate voices of the soft-spoken Southern countrywoman and the buttoned-down Yankee, emphasizing the cultural contrasts between them in terms of language, weather, food, architecture and social customs. A third factor enters their relationship when Wim is befriended by Branch Goodlin, Leandra's former beau, who has never stopped loving her. Together, Leandra and Branch help Wim to die. The emotionally charged tone of this account, and the prevalence of such words as ""poignant,"" ""melancholy"" and ""sorrowful"" deprive the narrative of any ironic distance. There are echoes of Reynolds Price in Leandra's folksy talk, and even Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome comes to mind in Leandra's former role of caretaker to her invalid sister. But Dodd works her material distinctively, and her message of salvation through the power of love is moving. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 08/03/1998
Release date: 08/01/1998
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-688-16973-2
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