- Blame by Michelle Huneven
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 1, 2009)
- ISBN-13: 978-0374114305
Back-of-the-book blurb: Patsy MacLemoore, a history professor in her late twenties with a brand-new Ph.D. from Berkeley and a wild streak, wakes up in jail—yet again—after another epic alcoholic blackout. “Okay, what’d I do?” she asks her lawyer and jailers. “I really don’t remember.” She adds, jokingly: “Did I kill someone?”
In fact, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and daughter, are dead, run over in Patsy’s driveway. Patsy, who was driving with a revoked license, will spend the rest of her life—in prison, getting sober, finding a new community (and a husband) in AA—trying to atone for this unpardonable act.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: Through the story of Patsy MacLemoore and Blame, Michelle Huneven explores the themes of blame, guilt, redemption, and forgiveness – not only from external forces, but, most deeply, from the self-examination and soul-searching of the main character.
We meet Patsy about a year before the alcohol-induced auto accident. In this prologue (well, it’s a single chapter labeled Part One, but it functions as a prologue), she is drunk, high, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor by sharing beer and pills with a 12-year-old. I took an immediate dislike to her.
I continued reading, and it wasn’t long before I not only empathized with Patsy, but I grew to have a real affinity for her. After the accident, Patsy is sentenced to four years in prison. We read in detail her streaming thoughts as she is held at a temporary location, then moved to a more permanent facility. Huneven describes Patsy’s internal reaction to the harsh realities of leaving her job, her home, her family. We feel Patsy’s discomfort as she goes through the intake process, is given something of a hazing in prison, then suffers physical effects from nerves and malnutrition.
Huneven effectively employs an omniscient narrator, who is always at Patsy’s side. Every word is carefully chosen to give us a clear picture of the characters and their actions. This passage, which describes a peer of Patsy, could be used to describe Huneven’s writing (p 172):
She was brisk in the way of doctors, athletic and precise, setting the table with an appealing economy of movement, tossing the salad with small precise rotations.
All quotation marks have been omitted from dialogue. Rather than creating ambiguity, as you might expect (or fear), this technique creates a murky filter for the events.
The first time Patsy attends a AA meeting in prison, she does it reluctantly, almost begrudgingly, but wishes her cell-mates had coaxed her a little more. These reflections show her tough-girl armor starting to chink (p. 50):
Patsy recoiled at the loser litanies and simplistic religiosity. She might have a genetic propensity for alcoholism, but she’s always stayed on track, accumulating degrees and honors and publications in spite of a concomitant taste for liquor, pharmaceuticals, and rich boy wastrels. She’d been valedictorian and Party Hardiest in high school, the first in her family to matriculate into a University of California grad school and a California correctional institution. She, at least, had range.
Not for me, Patsy told Gloria afterward. Besides, I’m not sure I want to give up alcohol for the rest of my life.
How ’bout one day at a time?
That’s sophistry, said Patsy. Everybody knows it means forever.
They do? Gloria shrugged. So drink till you’re done. Then, if you feel like a meeting, they’re around. Oh, look, here’s Ruth with coffee.
After the big show Gloria and Annie had made of dragging her to an AA meeting, she thought, they might have fought a little harder to make her stay.
Throughout the novel Huneven wavers between an indirect praise of AA (populating it with recovering alcoholics who have found great succes with the program), and a veiled disdain for the cultish aspects of it. I’m not sure where Huneven’s personal opinion lies, and it doesn’t matter; Patsy vasillates between the two ends of the spectrum.
I love the way Huneven uses Silver, Patsy’s psychiatrist, to tease introspection out of Patsy. Silver’s sterotypical “how do you feel about that?” response has her patient truly evaluating, not shutting us out. In this scene she asks a rare direct question, Patsy’s answer is telling, and central to the entire novel (p 167):
But isn’t there a higher, truer self, a self that’s free of addiction and obsession, that knows what’s best for you? said Silver. And isn’t that why you come here? To find and nourish that authentic, unenslaved self?
No, Patsy said with wonder. Not at all. That never even occurred to me.
So tell me, Patsy, why do you come here?
Guilt, she said. How to live with guilt.
And for years, decades, Patsy tries to figure out how to live with the guilt. It involves a lot of self-denial and blame, even when others have forgiven her.
Blame is a riveting read; not action-packed, but emotion-laden. It is heavy; heavy with Patsy’s guilt which cloaks her every thought. The novel will leave the reader wondering about the effects of blame and guilt. Why are we often the last ones to forgive ourselves for our own transgressions?
About the author: Michelle Huneven is the author of two previous novels, Jamesland and Round Rock. Based on the exceptional writing in Blame, I’m eager to read these two back-listed titles.