Ode To The Dead: In Remembrance Of Characters Past

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Stewart O'Nan is the author of, Emily, Alone, due out in paperback at the end of December, and the forthcoming novel, The Odds.

I first heard of Christie Hodgen way back in 2001, when I was a judge for the National Endowment for the Arts. Her story of a younger sister dealing with a troubled, possibly mentally ill brother flat knocked me out. The other judges on the panel agreed — here was a powerhouse writer. I felt privileged to read her work before the rest of the world, so why did it take me so long to discover her second novel, Elegies for the Brokenhearted, which came out last summer?

I'm not sure how I found the book — maybe I saw it in a bookstore while I was out on tour. I know it wasn't from word of mouth, and definitely not advertising. I hadn't read a review of it either, so it must have been dumb luck, running into it somewhere. I remember I didn't like the cover — it was a blah photo of two girls sitting under a cherry tree. And Elegies for the Brokenhearted? Wow, I thought, what a terrible title! My initial reaction, from painful and repeated experience, was sympathy for a fellow author.

But wait. Open the book. Here's the epigraph that welcomes you. It's from Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts: "The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife." It's a warning from the author that we're in for some mordant, bitter stuff — and we are.

The elegies of the title are laments — songs of mourning addressed directly to five people, now dead, who changed the life of our narrator. Mary Murphy is a girl from a broken, messy home. Her older sister Malinda is an addict who disappears for years, leaving Mary behind with their equally unstable mother. While focusing on the troubles of a drunk uncle, a high school laughingstock, an angry college roommate, a tortured composer, and her own piece-of-work mother, Mary shows us her painful, halting coming of age, transforming from the quiet kid sister to a wise and reconciled young woman.

Naturally, a book of elegies is going to be sad. But within each separate remembrance, Hodgen is also brutally funny, letting her company of outcasts fight back against a world that spurns them. Her characters aren't grotesques so much as people on the edges. Hodgen's narrator isn't cuddly either. Mary's just as puzzled and angry as her subjects, holding off anyone who comes too close. Add to that the formal challenge of writing in the second person and the inherent structural problems of addressing each of the deceased separately, and there's a degree of difficulty to Elegies that might seem insurmountable. Yet for all its depth and complexity, it's an easy, captivating read that any casual reader can appreciate. With each successive character, we care that much more for Mary, and for them.

Elegies for the Brokenhearted. By Christie Hodgen. Forget the bad jacket and crummy title, this is a great book.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

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