cover image Absolution


Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-61048-7

McDermott (The Ninth Hour) unfurls an evocative character study of American women in 1963 Saigon. Newlywed Tricia, a young woman of blue-collar stock whose lawyer husband works for Naval Intelligence, is out of her element among the socialites of her new milieu. She’s mentored by the sophisticated Charlene, an oil magnate’s wife who hosts martini lunches and devises altruistic if misguided aid schemes (one fundraiser involves selling Barbie dolls dressed in traditional Vietnamese garb). Tricia grows fond of Rainey, Charlene’s little girl, and much of the book unfolds in present day letters and conversations between Tricia and Rainey, the younger woman having contacted Tricia after meeting an American Vietnam War veteran who knew her and Charlene. McDermott finds her groove when she has Tricia reexamining her time in Saigon, where the women around her slipped into prescribed roles without questioning their submissiveness. A poignant conclusion shows how Charlene supported Tricia back in the ’60s after Tricia’s miscarriage (“I did not want to be the sort of woman who had a miscarriage. Didn’t want to be a part of that simpering sorority, a keeper of that shameful secret,” she narrates). In McDermott’s powerful story, the quest for absolution falls just beyond her characters’ grasp. Agent: Sarah Burnes, Gernert Company. (Nov.)