Lowe: A literary fiction fan’s dream

The Half Wives by Stacia Pelletier


Published April 4 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Henry Plageman, who was a former Lutheran minister turned hardware store owner, worlds come crashing down when he and his wife lose their two-year-old son, Jack.

Now he and Marilyn repeat the sad anniversary of the death of their son that becomes a yearly ritual. For the next 14 years, on the 22nd of May, the couple take their annual visit to Jack’s grave in the San Francisco City Cemetery at exactly 2 p.m. This is followed by replanting the small garden around Jack’s tombstone.

When Henry’s marriage becomes strained he turns to another woman, Lucy Christensen, who becomes his secret lover. The two end up having an eight-year-old daughter Anna (nicknamed Blue). Lucy loves Henry dearly, and Blue adores her father even though she rarely gets to see him. Lucy knows she needs to break up with Henry for her and Blue’s sake – I guess being the “other” woman with a secret child lost its excitement after so many years …? The question is – can she finally have the guts to dump him?! Meanwhile Marilyn, who feels tied to Henry via Jack, tries to drown her grief in endless charity work, but it never works.

On May 22, 1897, Henry might fail to show up because he’s stuck in the police station for disorderly conduct. That is, until this year, when the patterns are disrupted. All the characters come together at last, and concealed secrets spill forth.

The Half Wives also describes a part of San Francisco’s history that few I was never aware of. In the mid- to late-1800s it was recognized that there wasn’t enough room in San Francisco for the living and the dead. The cemetery where Jack’s buried sits on prime California real estate, overlooking the Golden Gate strait, and it’s a potter’s field: mostly immigrants and the destitute are buried there. When locals had proposed that the graves be moved elsewhere, Henry had made his objections loudly known. So the town of Colma was established and graves were exhumed and moved to Colma. The Half Wives addresses the politics behind that decision.

The novel moves smoothly among the four viewpoints, and between present-day events and people’s memories about their moments of happiness and heartache. Pelletier provides poignant insight into the odd dependent relationship between Lucy and Marilyn that directs their lives, even though they’ve never met, and Marilyn doesn’t know of Lucy’s existence. Henry can’t bring himself to leave either woman, though it’s clear that his avoiding that decision has wrought its own set of consequences. However, the dialogue uses dashes instead of quotation marks, which caught me off guard, especially since it’s told from four different points of view. The plot of this 320-page book spans a mere six hours, from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., with some flashbacks, and it is amazing how Pelletier is able to do this. The Half Wives is a great read for those who love literary fiction.

Red Deer’s Kirsten Lowe is studying at Athabasca University.

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