“I feel flat,” I tried to explain to my friend Jerry the day after I’d seen the old hotel. “I want adventure. I want to accomplish something. I want to live in a fishing village at the edge of the continent. Make mistakes and recover from them. Depend on myself. See what I can do.”
Jerry’s laugh was without amusement. “No one leaves their husband, their kids, their job because of flatness. That’s self-indulgent, Virginia. Adolescent. A luxury most of us cannot afford.”
This exchange encapsulates the tension running throughout Marlene Lee’s THE ABSENT WOMAN. Seeking a fulfillment she hasn’t found in her marriage, she leaves her husband and two boys and moves to Hilliard, a fishing village north of Seattle. She subleases an apartment in a largely empty, converted hotel from a woman who left Hilliard in a rush, and the woman’s belongings and reasons for leaving haunt Virginia as she tries to build a new life.
When she finds a piano in the hotel, she seeks out instruction, receiving it from an odd, disturbed woman named Twilah, with whom Virginia develops a tense, almost filial relationship. When Virginia begins seeing Twilah’s son Greg, the relationship becomes more contentious, even as Virginia’s compulsion to earn Twilah’s respect grows. It’s this quirky dynamic that draws the rest of THE ABSENT WOMAN into sharper focus and renders Virginia three-dimensional.
Lee’s dialogue is crisp. Her descriptions of Hilliard reveal its character without a heavy hand, with sustained fluorishes judiciously placed and effective:
Masts against the streaked sunset looked like stems and flags of musical notes. Pink-and-orange clouds behind the rigging moved to a fast tempo, and the halyards chimed. Soon the foghorn would begin blowing its low A.
Propaganda deals in generalities; art, the particular. THE ABSENT WOMAN succeeds as fiction, and art, precisely because Lee so ably examines the particulars of her characters. There are no caricatures, no easy answers. Virginia’s ex-husband, Ron, is no one-dimensional villain; he’s not a villain at all. His pain and exasperation are palpable. Her two boys are authentically confused, reserved, and resentful. Likewise, Virginia isn’t so much a hero as she is an individual full of foibles and uncertainties, unsure where the path she’s chosen will lead her.