@review MARLA CANTRELL
The Weight of Memory
By Jennifer Paddock
Author Jennifer Paddock grew up in Fort Smith, attended the University of Arkansas, and then moved to New York, where she earned her M.A. in creative writing from NYU.
In The Weight of Memory, her third book, she reunites three characters we met in her debut novel, A Secret Word. High school friends Chandler, Sarah and Leigh are now thirty-five, an age where they assumed they’d be established in their careers, probably mothers, and happily married.
But nothing has gone according to plan. Chandler and Sarah are married, but not happily so, and Leigh, already divorced, has sworn off men. What Leigh really wants is to know who her father is, and what it feels like to belong.
“My mom only tells me what she has always told me in her vague way. My father wasn’t handsome and was always getting fired, and that is why she left him in California and moved back to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I was born. She has stuck to her story, and if I ever ask his name, she says it doesn’t matter, and asks why I want it.”
There is a haunting goodness about Leigh, and you want to believe she will find her father, that he will be good to her, and that her life will be put right.
While Leigh starts out on her search, Chandler, a lawyer and former aide to a U.S. senator who now works in an Alabama bookstore, is dealing with her own issues.
“I often wonder if I could do a job like that again. I’ve been out of the workforce so long. How could I explain why? The answer is simple: my father killed himself, and it has stalled me, and changed me, and I am not ambitious anymore.”
Meanwhile, Sarah, the former aspiring actor, musician and artist, has a tempestuous relationship with her father, whom she calls C.H. He’s a self-absorbed, respected surgeon, who uses his money to control those closest to him. When we meet Sarah, she’s working in a dress shop, living in her father’s vacation house in Destin, and trying to figure out how to get her husband, who’s still in New York, to come back to her.
“I do not have a nice cell phone because C.H. pays my phone bill and doesn’t think I need one. I also don’t have cable for this reason. On my way out, I straighten a red/blue/green abstract canvas I painted that rests on the floor at the turn in the staircase. I left blank spaces in the canvas. Cézanne used to do that if he couldn’t give a reason for a color. I often feel like I have blank spaces in my life, things I don’t understand.”
The novel, told chapter by chapter in the voices of the three women, is an ambitious work filled with converging story lines that Paddock handles deftly. Two marriages hang in the balance. One of the women falls in love with a gentle man named Walker who has a memory disorder that causes him to periodically lose time, forget his past, but somehow he’s able to retain information like his girlfriend’s Social Security number – he can recite it backwards - and the names of all the constellations.
Running even deeper is the bond that holds Leigh, Sarah and Chandler together. When they were in high school in Fort Smith, a boy they loved died. The events surrounding his death caused them guilt and sorrow that have not yet abated.
The three deal with it all in Destin, while waiting on Hurricane Katrina to make landfall.
Paddock’s writing is spare and lyrical. The rhythm of her words seems to mimic the tide coming in. There is a sway to them, mesmerizing, and then a rush of emotion follows. And always, the question of what memory means is put to the test. Would it be better to live in the moment, to forget what pains us most, or would we miss the ghosts of the hard times, like every good memory we handle with such great care?
Finally, Chandler answers the question this way. “The past is important to me,” she says. “Memory is everything.”
The Weight of Memory is an extraordinary book. Paddock weaves the stories effortlessly, taking the reader from Fort Smith, to Destin, to Point Clear, Alabama, to New York and back again. It will remind you how much friends matter, the blessing of a good mother, and that what we lose is just as important as what we keep.
Jennifer Paddock will be the guest of honor at the Fort Smith Library Endowment Trust’s “Having a Party with Music, Books, and Drinks” on Thursday, May 3, at 6:30, at Second Street Live. Poet Carla Ramer will be performing, and the Frog Bayou Boys, the Don Bailey Ensemble, Gary Hutchinson and the Oreo Blue Trio will be playing music.
You’ll be able to get the first copies of The Weight of Memory, a full day before its release. Tickets are $20 per person, or $35 per couple. Call 479.783.0229 for more information.