On the surface, Alice McDermott’s Absolution – historical fiction that takes place in Vietnam in the 1960s , seems like a straightforward story. It’s about expat white wives who have followed their husbands overseas, and their lives of serving as “helpmeets” for their partners. Patricia, a young, naive newlywed, is befriended by another wife named Charlene soon after arriving in Saigon. Charlene is domineering, quixotic and alluring, quickly drawing Patricia into her circle and embroiling her in various schemes. Yet Charlene might have been the only one with a working moral compass, which confuses and challenges Patricia, causing her to question and analyze her time in Saigon even after many decades have passed.
Why I picked it up: Absolution is my first Alice McDermott novel. I’ve always been intrigued and it was time to give her a try!
Absolution is told in flashbacks, decades later, from two perspectives: Patricia and Lainey, Charlene’s daughter. Patricia is sorting through her memories from her year in Saigon – Charlene’s distribution of Barbie dolls, complete with Vietnamese clothes sewn by the best local seamstress, to American expats and to and patients in a leper colony; Charlene’s support after the first of Patricia’s miscarriages; Charlene’s possibly inappropriate relationships with American doctors she befriended while helping the sick. Patricia’s inability to figure Charlene out is consistent with the opacity of much of what went on in Vietnam during that period – her husband’s real job, for example, and the relationship between the Vietnamese cooks and housekeepers and their white employers. Moral ambiguity fuels daily life for these women, just as it did the overall global conflict, and many years after Charlene is gone, Patricia is still trying to figure out whose side she was on.
Obligation and expectation, of wives and daughters, play a major role Absolution, and as Patricia and Lainey find commonality in how they both obeyed and defied Charlene, they also confront their disappointment in and acceptance of the lives they ultimately led.
Absolution turns out to be a complicated book, one that took me much longer to get through than its page length would suggest. It grew on me a I read it, though, asking more of me as I got deeper in and ultimately investing me in these women and their bittersweet, complex lives.
Absolution was the 2nd book of 2024 and satisfies the One Word Title category of the 2024 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.