Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus
& Giroux: 296 pp., $25
We first see the heroine -- and she truly becomes one over the course of "Blame" -- through the eyes of 12-year-old Joey, who is bedazzled by her glamorous uncle Brice and his tall, blond girlfriend Patsy MacLemoore, who's drunk (as usual) when she gives the girl a beer and botches an attempt to pierce her ears.
A year later, in May 1981, Patsy awakens from a blackout in a California jail. The sheriff tells her that while turning too quickly into her driveway the night before, she mowed down a mother and her young daughter who were passing out Jehovah's Witnesses literature. Because the deaths occurred on private property, she is allowed to plead guilty to criminal negligence instead of manslaughter, which she readily does, remembering absolutely nothing.
The brilliant, beautiful PhD and college history professor finds herself, at the age of 29, sentenced to four years in a women's penitentiary. Huneven does a masterful job of describing the tedious, stressful and at times dangerous conditions Patsy endures amid arsonists, armed robbers and murderers. She stands up to bullies, endures the brutal whims of guards and makes enduring friends. She had heard that in prison there was time "to read, write, make yourself into a lawyer. Nobody mentioned that the time was filled with the ambient sounds of women raging, gates clanging, an ever-crackling public-address system." There is hard work too when she is assigned to the fire-control squad.
Patsy corresponds with Joey and her long-suffering parents, and she forms a tentative friendship with Mark Parnham, the bereaved husband and father who is able to forgive what she cannot.
She resists her fellow inmates' entreaties to join their AA group, remembering how pathetic she thought her father, who claimed that his greatest achievement in life was to kick alcohol. Finally she joins, out of boredom and seeking camaraderie. She dutifully accepts the routine of spiritual reading, journal-keeping; she would even pray, "even if her higher power was To Whom It May Concern."
When she is sprung to freedom, Patsy feels like an alien in a mostly sober society. She'd been a boozer since the age of 13: doing homework drunk, writing her dissertation drunk, teaching drunk, picking up men in bars, drunk. Now she learns just how taxing normalcy is, never having experienced it before. Huneven makes an astute observation when she has Patsy, at a dinner party, marveling over how slowly people sipped their wine. She makes a resolution "to be good, whatever that meant. Her soul, that scrap of energy, was in tatters, no doubt beyond repair. Her only hope was to make herself useful to others, try to balance wrong with right."
She continues to go to meetings, resigns herself to never again be the life of the party, sponsors female prisoners, gets her teaching job back, makes solid friendships with Brice and his beautiful young lover Gilles, becomes a second mother to Joey who feels unloved by her stepmother. She goes into therapy with a shrink who assumes Patsy is seeking an "authentic, unenslaved self." "Not at all. That never even occurred to me." Her modest goal is to learn how to live with guilt.
The 20-some years after prison are decent, uneventful ones, but beautifully rendered as Huneven delves into Patsy's moral struggles and her deepening relationships. The most complex bond is the one she forges with Cal Sharp, 35 years older but a charismatic, revered mentor in AA circles. Despite the misgivings of her friends and family, she marries him, and they make a rich, though not problem-free life together. As Cal visibly ages and fades and she sees that they don't have much to talk about, she is tempted to have an affair with a vibrant, stimulating colleague but resists, willing to pay the emotional cost of spurning love: "She was nauseous and elated and furious. If he'd only kept his mouth shut, they could've ridden it out to a lower key and gone on for years."
But then, upsetting her careful, penitent life, comes Joey with news that upends everything Patsy thinks she knows about herself: "[H]istory demonstrates that events transpire and narratives are built around them." Good luck, dumb luck, bad luck happen randomly, but people can't help but build meanings into them.
When we leave Patsy, she has left the house to her bossy stepdaughter-in-law and her family, looked with sorrow at her doddering husband asleep in front of the television and moved out to a little private hideaway, pondering her revised past and her uncertain future.
The satisfactions "Blame" offers readers are elegant prose and, deeper than that aesthetic pleasure, the intelligence and compassion Huneven brings to her characters. She holds them all with the utmost tenderness.
Frase is a critic and reviewer.