One Vacant Chair–Joe Coomer

Another amazing book that I almost passed by on the shelf, which goes to show that I’m a poor judge of what is good for me.  I’m so glad I pulled it out and, to confess to being somewhat superficial, the cover image drew me in.  A painting of a chair.   Some covers show a photograph of a modern aluminum chair.  That is no good for this book.   The flyleaf said something about an aunt who painted only chairs and I thought, gimmicky, but it worked, and I added it to my pile.

Sarah is overweight and middle-aged.  She creates Christmas ornaments for Hallmark, but does not believe in Jesus.  She has just discovered that her husband was cheating on her and, although he wants to mend things, she is not sure.  Her grandmother, who disliked her and vice versa, just died and they are forced to attend the funeral together.  Awkwardness ensues made more awkward by the eccentricity of her grandmother’s caregiver, her Aunt Edna.  Aunt Edna collects and paints chairs and the novel sucked me in as Sarah described moving these mismatched chairs to a vacant lot for the funeral service.  Aunt Edna is the school lunch lady, the youngest daughter who stayed home to care for her elderly parents while her older siblings left Texas for jobs and lives elsewhere.  Her father died many years ago of pancreatic cancer and her mother had been an arthritic invalid with a variety of accompanying illnesses ever since.

But Aunt Edna is not bitter.  She loved her mother dearly and what emerges is a beautiful and complex mother-daughter relationship that broke my heart while it reassured me of the truth of real love.   The will reveals that Edna will inherit the house and Grandma wants her ashes scattered in Scotland, which she had fallen in love with from a coffee table book given to her by her grandson.  The oldest sister, Margaret, who speaks economically and, instead, uses exaggerated body language to communicate and tyrannize her family, challenges both requests and insists that her parents spend their eternal rest together.  The compromise is to disinter Grandpa, cremate his remains, and carry both sets of ashes to Scotland.  At the conclusion of the meal, Sarah decides not to return home with her husband, but to stay behind to help Aunt Edna deal with the bureaucracies of the disinterment as well as the foreign travel.

Sarah and Aunt Edna go on a diet and Sarah begins drawing again, with some guidance from Aunt Edna.  Any stiffness is broken by James, the blind black man who canes Aunt Edna’s chairs and who is in love with Aunt Edna.  A short time after the funeral, Edna accepts his proposal of marriage and Sarah realizes she will have to decide where to go once the Scotland trip is over.  Edna is trying to teach her to see again in order to draw.  James is trying to teach her to see the way he sees and gradually, Sarah begins to see through her anger.

The trip to Scotland is priceless as two Texas women descend on a land of greenery and moisture.  Sarah realizes she loves travel, pushes herself to experience life to the fullest, and receives two painful revelations that drive the plot of the remainder of the book.

The novel is written in the first-person, but as a retrospective account.  From this we know that Aunt Edna’s paintings have become famous and that many scholars and others have offered endless speculation about her life and motivations.  One of my favorite plot elements is Edna’s decision to put her parents’ ashes in wooden boxes that she paints with chairs and her realization, after a museum visit in Edinburgh, that humans have been putting remains in boxes for thousands of years.

Having watched my parents lose their fathers in recent years, I am conscious of the visceral pain of losing a parent and I dread when they lose their mothers.  Because of these experiences, the scene in which Sarah and Edna scatter the last of the ashes and Edna, crying, sticks her ash-covered hands in her mouth so she will not have to let go of the last of her mother, was wrenching where for others it might be more nauseating.

Coomer creates thoroughly engaging characters who guide us through a meditation on life and death and the relationship between and the place of love in the midst of it all, familial and romantic love.  This is a book that will not leave me any time soon.  It even made me want to try my hand at painting chairs.

Finished 6/25/12


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