Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer

I discovered Joe Coomer's books years ago through another reading friend's recommendation. Then I chose one of his books for my summer book club last summer to help spread the word a bit farther. There's just something wonderful about the quirky characters he creates and the way in which he can tackle deep philosophical issues in the guise of a humorous, thinking novel that makes his work shine. One Vacant Chair is the latest I've read and thoroughly enjoyed.

This novel opens with the Hutton family gathering for the memorial service to bury their mother and grandmother. Edna, an unmarried school cafeteria worker and artist who paints portraits of chairs had taken care of her cantankerous, bedridden mother for twenty odd years. But Edna (and grandma) lived lives that would have surprised the rest of the family and after the reading of the will where grandma asked for her ashes to be scattered in Scotland, a place she'd never been, the details of their lives start to emerge. Sarah, Edna's niece, reeling from her husband's infidelity, offers to stay and help her aunt pull together all the lose ends involved in international travel for those who have never left home. She also has the chance to observe her aunt's artistic process and to get in touch her own artistic roots while in the presence of a wonderful artist, one who will be revered posthumously as small comments scattered throughout Sarah's telling of the story make clear. While living with Edna and then traveling with her to Scotland, Sarah learns the secrets, large and small, of her aunt's life and comes face to face with the delicate realities of living and dying.

On the surface, a quirky tale filled with unusual characters, Coomer has a knack for delving deeply into the things that drive our lives. Here the examination is not only of life and death as points on the same continuum but also of the place of family and love on our own personal time lines. With Sarah telling the story from the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows much of the territory that the narrative will cover but that doesn't make it dismissively predictable. Instead, it freights the conversations between Sarah and aunt Edna with more portents than perhaps would have been possible otherwise. And still there are major twists that are surprising in their deviation from the expected. As the two women travel through Scotland doling out ashes in the places they have chosen, they each struggle with the path their lives are on, trying to find the right thing for themselves in balance with those surrounding them. The book is never preachy and always accessible but it is full of the symbolic and the philosophical. It is beautifully presented and entertainingly drawn, well-written and appealing. You'll warm to the characters, ache with their indecision and weaknesses, and laugh with their eccentricities. You might even learn something about art and art process (I sure did). Readers looking for an unusual story will be richly rewarded with this one. It's a gem.


  1. I just love quirky characters and books...thanks for the review.

  2. I loved your review, especially the last paragraph - so eloquent! I have an incredible weakness for quirky characters. I might have to check this out. :-)


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