Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh: a review

Despite the title, this is a portrait of three women (Birdie Bell, Joan Cohen, and Dinah Whitacre) who all end up marrying Ken Kimble, and the story of their children, especially the oldest, Charlie Bell.  To Mr. Kimble, perhaps, the women are all alike, filling a role he needs someone to play. 

For us, however, getting to know them in their strengths and heartbreaking frailty is the reason to read the book, and it's an excellent reason.  They are both individuals and types, and among them they span a lot of the possible roles for women in the era (the 1960's and 1970's, at the time they meet and marry the man)...although I have to say that none of them is like my mother.  She was stronger and less dependent, and she married in 1954!

Kimble is a human McGuffin, a plot device to take us from South Carolina to Florida to Washington, DC and into the lives of the main characters.  That being said, he is too much of a blank even for the role that he plays. Where did he come from?  How did he get the skills to be a successful minister and youth leader in one place and a real estate developer in another? 

Most of all, what made him a smooth liar, a wheeler-dealer, a man who could leave one life behind and begin another at will, a workaholic and an amasser of expensive things, yet apparently someone who took no joy in anything he did?

The author seems to sense the thinness of his character herself.  Several times, a Mrs. Kimble or a son asks, "What kind of man would...?"  There is never any answer.  He dies in the prologue to the book, so I am not spoiling the plot by telling you that he dies without ever revealing himself.  To me, this was the only unsatisfying piece of a novel I would recommend highly.

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