Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I agree. Little kids love to hear violent fairy tales of children lost in the woods, to remind themselves just how safe and cozy in bed they are. It's a way to vicariously experience, and maybe somehow prevent, the most horrific aspects of human misfortune. That need doesn't go away with the onset of adulthood. Otherwise there wouldn't be such huge markets for books about murderers, deadly mountaineering accidents, or soul-crushing child abuse. None of those things happen in The Descendants, a first novel from local author Kaui Hart Hemmings. The tragedies are a bit more subtle and a lot more commonplace. And they even happen in the insulated world of old-money Hawaii, so protected from the kind of problems that most people have. The fact that tragedy strikes, even in this place, makes it all the more terrifying.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and Hemmings' story takes on a few truths that we'd really rather not face, but often have to: Sometimes, a person in the prime of life will have an accident that leaves her gravely injured. Sometimes, a person will cheat on his or her spouse, even if they desperately love and need each other. Sometimes, though it's no one's fault, little girls will have to grow up in the world without their mother. It's the stuff of nightmares, yet I'd be willing to bet that scores of women across America will be packing The Descendants into their luggage to read this summer on Hawaiian beach vacations. Laying on chaises in the sun, reading about a family falling to pieces, they will look up at their own kids and spouses frolicking in the surf, and they will take a deep breath and appreciate for a moment how safe and cozy they are. That's why we read about tragedy -- to ward it off.
Hemmings' novel (expanded from her prizewinning short story, "The Minor Wars", which appeared in her story collection House Of Thieves) has plot elements that are fairly similar to those of any number of other works in the much maligned "Women's Fiction" genre. Parents fight with kids, spouses fight with each other, tragedy visits itself upon the unsuspecting. It doesn't matter: novelty is not why you read a book like this, anyway. You read it to hear how a new singer reinterprets an old standard, and Kaui Hart Hemmings sings it beautifully.
Matt King, the book's narrator, a lawyer, describes his situation like this: "I have inheritance issues. I belong to one of those Hawaii families that make money off of luck and dead people." Descended from a Hawaiian princess who married a wealthy white land speculator, it's now fallen to Matt to dissolve the family trust. He has the largest number of voting shares, and because of this, his vote will be the only one that counts when they meet to decide which time-share condo or shopping mall developer wins the bid for the family's vast and valuable land holdings. But, Matt's wife Joanie -- a gorgeous, wild island girl, a former model with a taste for partying and fast boats -- is lying in a deep coma. She was launched from a cigarette boat during a race and nearly drowned. Her condition keeps getting worse, and Matt is forced to abide by the conditions of her living will. He will have to withdraw life support, stop feeding her, and let her pass away.
Matt pulls his daughters out of school, so they have time to say goodbye. 10-year-old Scottie, tough and at times disturbingly adult, inherited her mother's penchant for chasing danger. After an incident in which Scottie hurts herself at the beach in order to get a boy to rescue her, Matt remarks that it's exactly the kind of thing her mother would have done: "Joanie WOULD think that story was hilarious. I think of her while we were dating. She loved creating dramas that involved men, pain, sex." Matt's older daughter Alexandra, 17, has taken on her mother's beauty and her party-girl lifestyle. When we first encounter her in the book, she's drunk on her boarding school's soccer field. Alex lets her father in on a secret she'd kept with her mother: at the time of the accident, Joanie had been carrying on a passionate affair. Matt has a lot of questions, and sets about answering them before Joanie dies: who is he? Did he love her? Does he deserve a chance to say goodbye?
What prevents all of this from falling down the treacle well is Matt's funny, real, exasperated voice. he simply cannot believe that all of this is happening to him, and he's dealing as best he can. Describing Troy, Joanie's friend who was piloting her boat when the accident happened, he says "Troy is so slow. His great-grandfather invented the shopping cart, and this has left little for Troy to do except sleep with lots of women and put my wife in a coma." At times, Matt's daughters seem to him like strangers, a foreign invading alien species. He asks the housekeeper what they do, and what they like, studying up like you would for an exam. Other times, he talks to them like you'd talk to any adult confidante, confessing everything, no matter how personal or upsetting. Alex is a full accomplice in Matt's effort to find and confront Joanie's lover. These are not things a child psychologist would suggest to help get your kids through grief.
Matt is as clueless and adrift as anyone would be when thrust into such a situation, but especially so for someone who seemed destined for a life of sun, sand, and leisure. The immensity of what's about to happen dawns on him slowly. "I need to remember to feed the children. I need to make sure they wash and brush their teeth and go to doctors...They need to say Â‘yes', not Â‘yeah,' to put their napkins in their laps, to chew gum with closed mouths. I need more time."
The phrase "Minor Wars," from which Hemmings' original short story took its title, comes from Matt's nickname for the Portuguese man-of-war, a kind of stinging jellyfish. "I called them minor wars because they were like tiny soldiers with impressive weapons--the gaseous bubble, the whiplike tail, the toxic tentacles--advancing in swarms." It's too bad that Hemmings didn't keep her original title, because it's such a wonderfully evocative phrase, and so perfect for Matt's situation. One "minor war" wouldn't kill you. But a whole swarm might make you wish you were dead. Matt doesn't cave, though, he soldiers on, he figures things out, he loves his daughters, he needs and relies on them. They deal with their tragedies in the real, messy, messed-up way that real people do. An impressive achievement, The Descendants is hopefully just the first in a long line of solid, enjoyable, smart yet beach-readable novels from Kaui Hart Hemmings. After all, we still need more stories in order to live.