four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A-BlameAward-winning novelist and food critic Michelle Huneven, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, teaches creative writing at UCLA and Occidental College.

The Story: After waking up in the county jail, 29-year-old college professor Patsy Mac-Lemoore, unable to remember the night before, is horrified to learn that she killed a mother and daughter while driving home drunk. Sentenced to four years in prison, she serves only two and is released into the world sober and forever changed. Guilt-ridden and convinced that her only hope of atonement is "to make herself useful to others, to try to balance wrong with right," she forges a life defined by her crime. But a chance discovery years later casts doubt on the events of that terrible, fateful night, and Patsy must reconsider her life’s choices.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 296 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780374114305

Atlantic Monthly 4 of 5 Stars
"Huneven’s nervy third novel turns a potentially prosaic plot—vivacious, besotted intellectual blacks out, dries out, does time, changes ways, rebuilds life—on its head via zippy dialogue, smart pacing, and, most vitally, a third-act plot twist that magically avoids contrivance. Huneven has a knack for limning the limits of guilt."

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In many ways, this is an old-fashioned book—compelling plot twists with fully realized characters, enhanced by Michelle Huneven’s ability to render life in prison, Alcoholics Anonymous, college faculty and the horse-loving Southern California set with depth and insight. At the heart of this novel is the sense that life is a continuous, and often erratic, course of self-discovery but, like Patsy[,] not without humor and irreverence." Elizabeth Taylor

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Blame is noteworthy for its sharply drawn characters, most of whom are neither good nor bad but struggling in between. But its true power is in the questions it raises about blame, responsibility and consequence." M.L. Johnson

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"The award-winning Michelle Huneven unfurls her tale with unflagging emotional nuance: Patsy emerges as smart, self-aware, and very much flawed, neither a monster nor a redeemed angel. … The result is a novel that combines the compulsive pleasures of a pageturner and the deeper satisfaction of true, thoughtful literature." Leah Greenblatt

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"A social novel, it captures the climate of the times, while probing bedrock questions: how to be good, how to atone for egregious wrongdoing. And it is a literary novel, with nimble prose, fully developed characters and emotion achieved not on the cheap but through an unsentimental, unblinking outlook." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The 20-some years after prison are decent, uneventful ones, but beautifully rendered as Huneven delves into Patsy’s moral struggles and her deepening relationships. … The satisfactions Blame offers readers are elegant prose and, deeper than that aesthetic pleasure, the intelligence and compassion Huneven brings to her characters." Brigitte Frase

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Michelle Huneven tells this story with a riveting sense of drama, and she deftly steers away from soap-operatic temptations. … But following the accident, as we watch her confront the bleakness that has enveloped her life, the effort of keeping up with Patsy is handsomely rewarded." Gabriella Stern

Critical Summary

Huneven’s elegant third novel probes some deep questions: What does it mean to be good? Is it possible to atone for terrible transgressions? If so, how? Patsy is an intelligent, honest heroine, and her guilt and pain are palpable. Huneven skillfully leads Patsy on the long and winding road to self-discovery and maturity over the course of 20 years, and critics praised Huneven’s supple prose and nuanced view of the world. The only debate arose from her unconventional dialogue. The Kansas City Star thought the lack of quotation marks and attributions gave her prose a "dreamlike, luminous depth," while other critics found it confusing. These reservations aside, Blame is a sensitive and insightful novel of recovery and redemption.

Also by the Author

Round Rock (1997): After his wife leaves him, recovering alcoholic Red Ray turns their decrepit Victorian mansion in the Santa Bernita Valley into a "drunk farm," successfully creating a haven for men in need of a second chance in life. But when grad student Lewis Fletcher arrives, his denial and self-destructive behavior test Red’s patience and determination.