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"Absolution: A Novel" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Alice McDermott offers readers a beautiful literary experience with her new novel “Absolution” a thought-provoking, nostalgic story set in Vietnam in 1963. Its focus is original as McDermott shines a light on the wives of American men in Vietnam, creating a cast of women who accompanied their spouses to Saigon, undergoing tremendous upheaval in the process. Insight also is offered on Vietnamese women who fulfilled the needs and desires of American couples by acting as their servants, gardeners, cooks and seamstresses.

Tricia narrates first, an elderly woman recalling her past, the years she spent in Vietnam as a shy 23-year-old newlywed, besotted with her handsome husband, a lawyer recruited to work for government intelligence in Saigon. One can’t help but have empathy for young Tricia, her innocence and lack of expertise in social settings rendering her vulnerable to the more experienced wives secure in their roles, at ease at formal teas and garden parties.

Tricia wants to fit in, to be a “…helpmeet” to her husband, “Be the jewel in his crown,” a directive her loving but conventional father issues on her wedding day. When an embarrassing situation arises at a cocktail party, shortly after Tricia and Peter arrive in Saigon, Charlene comes to the rescue, a pretty woman, seasoned wife, and mother of three. Charlene always has an agenda, yet she comes to truly care about Tricia, though her desire to help borders on control.

As Tricia reflects on her long ago past in Vietnam, she directs her voice to Charlene’s daughter. Rainey is just a girl when Tricia first meets her in Saigon, a pretty little thing holding a Barbie like a “scepter,” the first Barbie that Tricia had ever seen. The Barbie serves as an impetus for a project Charlene spearheads in which she enlists the help of a Vietnamese seamstress, paying her a meager sum to make authentic Vietnamese outfits for Barbies, doll clothes that Charlene sells to American women in Saigon, the cash generated going into a charitable fund.

Before Tricia realizes it, Charlene has drawn her into the project, charming her as she coerces Tricia, lauding the money that will be made. It isn’t the only fundraiser Charlene arranges, her efforts to do good eventually commanding more of her attention than she gives her husband or children.

Tricia’s friendship with Charlene fills a void in her life, a chasm deepening between Tricia and Peter, the result of repeated miscarriages. Tricia is passionate about having a baby, but Peter, from a large family, isn’t as driven to become a parent. As Tricia and Peter’s relationship suffers, the political situation in Vietnam worsens until for safety’s purposes, the Americans return home.

The novel then shifts narration, the second section of the book told by Rainey, now a mother with adult children of her own. She addresses Tricia, filling her in on Charlene and the family’s life back in the States. In some sense, Tricia’s confusion about Charlene, a complicated woman, is clarified, and secrets are revealed in Rainey and Tricia’s discourse.

“Absolution” is a riveting, contemplative novel, a beautifully written story with a strong sense of place. It brings together two vastly different women at a fractious period in history, a time rife with rigid social mores and restrictions, racial inequality and the horror of impending war. McDermott doesn’t offer any easy answers, instead she tears a page from history and presents it to us. The result is mesmerizing.

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