Kaui Hart Hemmings

"The Descendants"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 13, 2008)

"I think of our bloodline's progression. Our missionary ancestors came to the islands and told the Hawaiians to put on some clothes, work hard, and stop hula dancing.  They make some business deals on the way, buying an island for ten grand, or marrying a princess and inheriting her land, and now their descendants don't work. They have stripped down to running shorts or bikinis and play beach volleyball and take up hula dancing."

Matt King, who is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess and the haole who married her and inherited her land, could "sit back and watch as the past unfurls millions into [his] lap," but he prefers to live on his own salary as a lawyer.  The primary beneficiary of the family land trust, Matt is now trying to decide what to do with the land on behalf of his cousins and family, since the trust is in debt and the demand for prime land in Hawaii is enormous.  Though the land has been in the family since the 1840s, developers have been solicited for bids, and some of the twenty-one beneficiaries of the trust are anxious to reap the millions which will come to them with a sale.  

Matt, however, will be making no decisions in the immediate future.  His thrill-seeking wife Joanie, who had been pushing for the sale of the land to a particular developer, now lies comatose after a boating accident, and her lack of progress alarms the doctors at Queens Hospital in Honolulu, who have her on life support.  Their two daughters, one a seventeen-year-old model, and the other a ten-year-old attention-seeker who torments other girls, have not had the kind of close care and attention they need, except from the housekeeper, and Matt has now committed himself to finding out who these daughters really are and what they are doing with their lives—until Joanie gets better, he thinks.  He intends to become the guiding force in their lives—a bit late for this effort, perhaps, but he is well-intentioned, nevertheless.

When Joanie takes a turn for the worse and the doctors say that she will never regain consciousness, her living will must be enacted, and Matt wants both daughters to be with him, and in the hospital visiting her, while they await her death.  Alexandra returns home from boarding school on the Big Island and, accompanied by Sid, a friend from a previous school, determines she will live her own life, even under the eyes of her father at home.  Scottie, the ten-year-old, continues to act out, and refuses to say her goodbyes to her mother.

When Matt discovers that Joanie has been having an affair, to which he has been oblivious, he is at a loss.  "My wife's not coming back, my wife does not love me, and I'm in charge now," he remarks, with some surprise.  As he visits their close friends and Joanie's family to tell them about Joanie's condition, Matt's internal dialogue and self-examination really begin.  He wonders about her lover and whether he should encourage this "love of her life" to share her last days in the hospital.  The search for this lover and the resulting discoveries lead to important lessons and new awareness of Matt's own responsibilities.

The clear presentation of events, exceptionally realistic dialogue, and unique imagery give life to this strong debut novel, and the narrative speeds along as each character tries to deal with Joanie's approaching death.  The author's insights into Matt's conflicts and his self-examination during his long vigil, along with his daughters' understandable tumult, provide some emotional resonance, even as moments of dark humor provide some respite from the tension.  The subplots, involving the sale of the land, the individual problems of the daughters, the background of Alexandra's friend Sid, and the life of Joanie's lover, are well integrated, and the conclusion is satisfying. 

The character of Matt is not based on any particular person, but Hawaiian readers cannot help but make associations between him and the Big Island's Parker family, adding an aura of "realism" to Matt's exotic background as the heir of a princess.  (The Parker family of the Big Island, descended from a Hawaiian princess and amassed a 240,000-acre ranch, the largest privately owned ranch in the country, before estate taxes led to the sale of some land recently.)  His generosity in wanting to have Joanie's lover share her last moments strains credulity, however, and the peripheral characters often exhibit extreme behavior.  A number of unusually dramatic and cinematic moments late in the novel make this a good story, though not necessarily a realistic one.  Entertaining, and filled with tugs at the heartstrings, The Descendants captures the life of a family at a crossroads, and does so with panache.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 175 reviews

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About the Author:

Kaui Hart HemmingsKaui Hart Hemmings grew up in Hawaii and has degrees from Colorado College and Sarah Lawrence College.  She works at the Writer's Grotto, a cooperative workspace of writers and filmmakers in downtown San Francisco. Her work has appeared in many publications including Zoetrope and the L.A Times. She now lives in San Francisco with her daughter and her husband, Andy Lautenbach.

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