Huneven’s novel about guilt and forgiveness

Michelle Huneven’s new novel gets off to a great start. It’s one of those beginnings that suggests we’ll be haunted up to the last page with questions about the truth. As it relates to Huneven’s young protagonist, a history professor, that question would be: “What really happened to Patsy MacLemoore the night she suffered an alcoholic blackout and killed two people with her car?”

Patsy shouldn’t even have been driving, what with her license having been suspended.  She’s a frequent blackout drinker, but nothing this horrific has happened before.  Nevertheless, she’s the one found at the steering wheel of the car that killed two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and her daughter.

From here on we get a gentle story about how Patsy gets sober in prison, gets her old job back, discusses her guilt with a therapist and finds an older, fatherly man to marry.  He’s rich, too, so she gets to live in a house with a to-die-for Southern California view.  Meanwhile, the husband/father of the victims befriends Patsy, and she’s able to experience his forgiveness.

Occasionally, Patsy tells someone she doesn’t remember much about the accident or that night. Also, when she describes what the victims were wearing, she’s off by a designer mile. It’s a no-brainer to recognize these moments as hints of some shocker to come, only they’re not intense enough to haunt and the surprise takes too long to manifest. It’s also unimagined and so hits with a mild thud, far from what the dust jacket promises:  “For the reader, it is an electrifying moment, a joyous, fall-off-the-couch-with-surprise moment.”  (Not really.)

Despite this let-down, Blame is enjoyable to read; it’s successfully written with a faultless, engaging style. The choices Patsy makes for her resurrected, post-prison, sober life are meaningful. Also, Patsy is a companionable protagonist whose moments — even the moment — evoke a sense of comfortable normal as she learns to live guilt-ridden but content.

Blame is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction to be announced March 11. It’s not the high-calibre fiction of Wolf Hall and American Salvage, among the contenders. It’s a decent enough story, but I’m baffled by its nomination.