By Bruce Jacobs

“Elegies for the Brokenhearted”
By Christie Hodgen
W. W. Norton & Co.  ($23.95, 270 pp.)

Young Mary Murphy, the protagonist of Christie Hodgen’s new novel “Elegies for the Brokenhearted,” has already had a tough life.  Her beautiful mother goes through husbands like so many brands of toothpaste, each promising better taste or whiter white until she squeezes them dry.  Her wild and crazy older sister (whom she adores) relentlessly spits criticism and sarcasm her way before one day just up and leaving…only to show up later and leave her only child for Mary to take in and ultimately adopt.

On top of this, five people who have had the greatest impact on her life have all died. And all of them are losers in one way or another:  a drunken uncle, a failed artist, an overweight brutish roommate, a grade school numbskull classmate, and her promiscuous, mostly absent, mother.  It is through separate “elegies” for these five that Hodgen tells Mary’s story.

The Lost Loner

Mary is a quiet loner, maybe by default, what with her flighty mother, distant sister and absent father.  She is a mediocre student who considers skipping college, even though she has been accepted, but winds up enrolled because she won’t get off the train taking her there.  She graduates but then drifts into working in the kitchen of a Maine resort (“a resort of last resort”).

“I was suffering the kind of existential crisis common to people in their twenties, the kind which often results in the rejection of entire systems of government, or moral or societal values – the kind which often results in a person’s permanent employment in a kitchen…I looked around.  I was on break from washing dishes, smoking a joint with a failed prodigy and an angry ex-wrestler.  I was sitting on a crate of rotten lettuce.”  Depressed and alone one night, she takes a swim off the beach where “the sky was black and the water too was black…I was floating on my back with my ears sunk underwater and it was quiet, quiet…at the time I felt utterly, hopelessly, infinitely alone.”

An Unhappy Novel

“Elegies” is not a happy novel.  Hodgen is not afraid to explore the many ways unhappiness and loneliness permeate our lives and those of so many around us.  But she can be funny too and doesn’t miss opportunities to close in on the heart of a character or situation with exactly the right voice.

Mary’s elegy for a grade school loser, who in his late teens sadly blows himself up while under a car torching off a leaky gas tank, begins:  “Elwood LePoer, your head was a brick, a block, a lollipop…In our dead-end school you were the village idiot…We called you everything we could think to call you.  Dipshit, Shithead, Shitheel, Shit-for-Brains.  We piled on every last cliché.”  And yet, this sad-sack of a classmate’s life helps Mary find meaning in her own.

Elegy by Elegy, It Gets Better

As the novel moves elegy by elegy towards its conclusion, Mary discovers that she is less alone than she thinks.  In addressing the others in her life, she sees that “we had all known joy and then lost it, had blindly sought after it again; we had taken up burdens and carried them for a time, then stumbled beneath them; we had made strides and then lapsed; we had taken strange paths that sometimes delivered us to safety and sometimes led us astray; we had despaired, tried again, despaired, tried again.”

In articulating her grief, she finds a path to contentment, a path that leads her to adopting the child of her sister and seeing that “what joined two people wasn’t blood, or fate, or signals granted from on high – what joined two people together were the small actions they performed for each other each day…the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the maintenance of the home and car, all the mundane things you never wanted to be bothered with.”

Christie Hodgen is a writer with a sensitive touch. “Elegies for the Brokenhearted” is an ambitious novel that challenges us in its structure and in its voice.  She gets her rhythm going early so we are quickly drawn into a world which is one we recognize although it might not be one we like.  Soon we find ourselves listening closer and learning from it.  Finally, we quite enjoy it.  You can’t ask much more of a novel.

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