Book Review: *Blame* by Michelle Huneven


  • 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 authorMichelle 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.

22 comments to Book Review: *Blame* by Michelle Huneven

  • Your review is fantastic – it makes me rather embarrassed by my feeble attempt earlier this week.

  • I have this here to read and I like books that make me ask questions, that leave me wondering. I’m not sure about the lack of quotation marks, but I’m willing to give it a try.

  • I have this one sitting here and keep meaning to read it! Your review was terrific!

  • Wonderful review – I’m really interested in reading it now. It’s not often you come across a balanced critique of AA.

  • I was going to say, it sounds really heavy, but worthwhile. These are issues that make sense to pay attention to. Off the top of my head, I remember “Blindness” and the Cormac McCarthy books having the same prose style, without a delineation between the different speakers. Once you get into the swing, it flows really nicely. This book was featured recently in EW and I have had my eye on it ever since!

  • [...] Associated Press review Bookmarks review Boswell and Books review Chicago Tribune review Entertainment Weekly review Howard County Times review Kansas City Star review Los Angeles magazine review Los Angeles Times review MORE review Publishers Weekly review She Is Too Fond of Books… review [...]

  • I’m glad that the character grew on you and you didn’t continue to dislike her throughout the book. This sounds like a really interesting read, and I like the fact that it is emotion filled, rather than filled with action. Great review, I will be looking for it.

  • Kathy – don’t be silly! We can all get something different from the same book (vive la diference!)

    Beth F – it flowed for me (without quotation marks), but I know some people have complained about this style in other books (can’t think of an example of one right now, and I don’t know if Huneven’s other novels employ it)

    Julie – I hope you do get to it!

    rhapsody – all the thoughts about AA are from Patsy’s perspective, from the very beginning at her first meeting in prison. It’s not a direct commentary, but it’s there none the less.

    Sandy – I haven’t read and Cormac McCarthy. I have THE ROAD on my shelf, but I’ve been afraid to pick it up. Dystopia is tough for me.

    zibilee – I think that lack of quotation marks made it even more emotion filled. I don’t know that I could read a lot of books with this styling, but it was very effective for this particular story.

  • You did a wonderful job on your review. I have seen this around, but now I really want to read it. Thanks

  • This sounds like a very interesting, intense read. Great review!

  • Diane – Huneven showed the rollercoaster of emotions that Patsy experienced. And those themes of blame, guilt, forgiveness, redemption … all tied together.

    Belle – *intense* is the perfect word to describe BLAME.

  • Your review is great. Honestly, though, I think I’d miss the quotation marks.

  • [...] ~ Blame by Michelle Huneven, reviewed by Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books. [...]

  • Really great review. I really want to read this – it sounds really intense, but really worthwhile. There are a lot of interesting topics that you brought up and I’m really interested to see how they play out in the book.

  • nsulisa

    I just got done reading this book. It is a great read. I love your review of the book. It was very accurate. I would definitely recommend anyone to read this book. I am interested to check out Michelle’s other books.

  • I suspect I will like this book-thanks.

  • Tony

    If you have a chance to read “Jamesland”, you will pick up a an intriguing thread which will connect you back to “Blame”.

    I read “Round Rock” last year and wrote a note to Mrs. Huneven. She explained to me that it was her first one, and it has a special place for her.

    It is so good to see that her considerable skills are still at work. We can, as readers, only benefit.

  • Carol – I got used to it pretty quickly, but it was an unusual styling!

    Jennifer – I hope you do get the chance to read it soon.

    nsulisa – yes, I want to read her other books :)

    Sandra – I’ll check your blog for the review or further mention of BLAME.

    Tony – I’m intrigued! I’ll definitely be reading JAMESLAND, thanks for the nudge.

  • James Ridley

    The book’s inaccuracy got to me a bit – first of all, one of the 2 jehovah’s witnesses coming down the driveway would NOT have been wearing jeans. Both ladies would have been wearing skirts/dresses as JW women are not allowed to wear trousers on their field ministry/or to their services.

  • nobody

    this story is a harsh reality that not only points at a faulty system-you can figure out which – but also points directly to the alcoholic,drug user,and to that person that never wants to land his/her feet on the ground because alcohol and drugs have just one way ticket out…you can figure that out too,
    i know I did! thanks “N” for the book it was priceless…

  • [...] isn’t it?!  It’s written in a breathless format, no quotation marks around dialogue (Michelle Huneven’s Blame is a similar format, and I also enjoyed the fast – almost frantic – [...]

  • Coralie Clune

    Had to read this book for Book Club.
    Yes, I did enjoy it, but wouldn’t go into raptures.
    I liked the fact that the ending was a surprise, that’s always good.
    No I’m not going hunting for other books by this Author and I probably would not have read it by choice. Not to say it wasn’t a good book, just not quite my cuppa.

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