Thursday, February 13, 2014
Book Review: Love Letters of the Angel of Death by Jennifer Quist (Whitney Finalist 2013)
Author: Jennifer Quist
Enjoyment Rating: *****
This book would be rated: PG-13 for some adult situations
In the opening scene of the novel, Briggs and his young wife discover the body of his mother at her trailer. It's not pretty. She's been dead several days, the end of a life of potential unfulfilled. As Briggs and his wife and boys navigate the funeral and the boxing up of her possessions, readers begin to see that he has a true love and passion for the woman he has chosen to spend his life with.
Over the course of this eminently readable novel, we get more vignettes. Briggs speaks to his wife, addressing her as "you" as he seems to touch on some of the highlights of their courtship and dozen-year (or so) marriage. He jumps back and forth from early dating to recent past to some of the tough early years living way up north in Canada while he established himself in his career. And it seems like a lot of the stories deal in some way with death. They go to a relative's funeral. Their son has an accident. They walk in the woods. She really hates big bugs.
It sounds like a lot of simple things, but Quist shows (without being sentimental or heavy-handed) that it's simple moments like these that make up a relationship, that cement a love affair. The writing is beautiful and a little bit haunting (I think it has to do with the perspective), and I found myself riveted. Since a book that focuses so much on death is ultimately a book that also focuses on faith, I was very impressed with the way that Quist handled issues of faith. I think that in books written by Mormons, we often see characters who are overtly Mormon and then seem to be characterized as "Mormon" characters, or we see authors who stay away from issues of religion and faith at all, so they don't have to address it and possibly limit their audience. To a Mormon reader, Briggs and his wife are obviously LDS, but Quist seems to stick to looking at issues of faith and not necessarily of Mormon culture (and honestly, I'm not sure how Mormon culture looks different in Canada). Quist's characters are faithful and mature, but their faith is undefined.
Finally, and I'm reluctant to say this, because putting together one of the pieces of the puzzle of this story as it unfolded was a sheer pleasure for this reader, I was delighted to see that in a year where we had many, many books about death in the pool of books to read for the Whitneys, this is one that managed to tell the story in an artful way. I'm delighted that the Whitneys brought it to my attention, but it will be a book that I recommend to many people.