Jincy Willett

"Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Fortune and Really Bad Weather"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 21, 2003)

From the opening paragraph, a woman's description of being struck by lightning, which she says "licked her body up and down…with a long scratchy cat tongue," the reader of this book expects the unexpected--and gets it. Dorcas Mather, the narrator, informs us early on that the other inhabitants of Rhode Island, like her, "have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don't even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner." In her own conversational and matter-of-factly Unfortunate Manner, Dorcas tells the sensational story of her twin sister Abigail, who is as sexually liberated as Dorcas is sexually repressed. When Dorcas says Rhode Islanders "kill, maim, insult our loved ones, or dream of doing so, to keep from going mad," we soon discover that this, too, is indeed true in her own narrative--Dorcas never hesitates to call a spade a spade.

When the novel opens, Dorcas, a librarian in Frome, R.I., is cataloguing books, with a hurricane due to hit any moment. Fortified with some scotch she has brought for the occasion, along with sandwiches and coffee, she reveals that she is preparing herself to catalogue one particular book, her own personal hurricane--In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story by Hilda DeVilbiss and her sister, Abigail. With delightful mockery of the book publishing process, Dorcas reveals that this book is making her sister into a national heroine for not only surviving her "marital horror" but for doing "something" about it. As Dorcas looks at the "ludicrous" cover of Abigail's book, which she calls "the Excrescence, the Abomination," she thinks she can even "make out the first sketchy report of a Japanese sneak attack on our naval forces at Pearl Harbor" in the busy artwork, an apt description of Abigail's effect on those close to her.

Elaborate, over-the-top paragraphs from the novel written by Hilda and Abigail alternate with Dorcas's iconoclastic and sometimes cynical tales about the real Abigail as the dual history of the Mather sisters unfolds. Abigail, in a photograph from childhood, is seen as a "white nimbus with eyes and a wide, camera-mugging smile, and some sort of flouncy dress [which] pales into a dream cloud." Sexually liberated since the age of 14, she is, according to Dorcas, "absolutely shameless," a homewrecker and "amoral exhibitionist," who has no qualms about breaking up marriages. Dorcas, in the same early photograph, finds herself, by contrast, looking like a "wizened gypsy in a navy collar middy and shorts." Though she says she knows "what it feels like…to experience desire," Dorcas has rejected sex. "Because I lived with Abigail," she explains, "I also know what it looks like…Ridiculous."

Not surprisingly for a book about a librarian and her unreliable author-sister, Winner of the National Book Award has books within books. In addition to the book written by Hilda DeVilbiss and Abigail, at least two other books figure in the action. Hilda's ineffectual husband Guy has written a book called Persephone's Grotto, which wins the National Book Award, thereby allowing him to "join the ranks of the literary dust gatherers, shoved aside to make room for the Next Great Writer." Conrad Lowe, Guy's college roommate, is also a writer. A physician with three best sellers to his credit, Conrad is a man of feral charm who has decided to live in Frome until he finishes his own next novel. Hilda and Abigail describe him as being possessed of a "cruel wit," an "icy misogynist rage," and "outright brutality," and the reader observes the manipulative Conrad flirting with Dorcas, ignoring Abigail, and therefore driving Abigail wild with frustration. When Hilda and Guy go to France on a book tour, their empty cottage on the R.I. shore, near picturesque Watch Hill, becomes the crucible for the action which changes all their lives.

Because the narrative moves back and forth between the events as told in Abigail's book and her sister Dorcas's much later reflections on these events, the reader learns in the first twenty-five pages of Abigail's "savage act of assertive self-realization," otherwise known as murder. Abigail tells us that after a fierce and brutal struggle with a man, who has threatened to kill her, she has run over him in the car, again and again, an act she does not regret. As Abigail and her ghostwriter Hilda reveal the circumstances which have led to this murder, revealing at the same time that Abigail has been in prison for her crime, the reader learns from Dorcas how Abigail reached this breaking point. On page sixty of her own account, Dorcas casually informs us whom Abigail has killed. The fact of the murder itself is never in doubt--it is the circumstances which led to it and the divergent views and lifestyles of Abigail and Dorcas which provide the interest and intrigue for the reader. As Dorcas tells us, "Abigail and I divided up the world. Sacred and profane. Spiritual and physical. Mind and body."

Winner of the National Book Award is a light, breezy, and often satiric send-up of New England values, the literary life, family interdependencies, our pre-occupation with "self-image," and the cruelties we humans perpetrate upon each other. Firmly rooting the novel in its Rhode Island setting, with its storms, hurricanes, and blizzards racing up the Atlantic coast, author Jincy Willett recreates the tumults and storms of her characters' daily lives, leavening the action with humor at the same time that her characters both create and meet their own disasters. Uncomplicated and straightforward, the novel is amusing and entertaining, a lively look at two peculiar sisters, who, as personifications of opposing views of life and conflicting values, may not be so peculiar after all.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews

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About the Author:

Jincy Willett lives in Escondido, California.
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