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[523] The Descendants – Kaui Hart Hemmings

” I could tell Scott that money isn’t going to make my life better; his daughter’s death is going to make my life easier. Deep within me, I know this. I don’t want to be in this situation, I don’t wish this upon her, but now that it has happened, now that I know what’s going to happen, I am confident my girls will make it out and will become strong, interesting people and I will be a good father and we will have a better life than the one we thought we were destined to have. ” (Ch.40, p.259)

People are not exempt from tragedies even in paradise because it is life. Matt King, a wealthy Honolulu attorney, has had a grave shock: his wife, Joanie, has been severely injured in a boat-racing accident and now lies in the hospital, comatose. In the painful depths of this domestic crisis, King, who “haven’t been the most available parent, and been in a state of prolonged unconsciousness,” (16) tries to repair his relationship with his two daughters. But taking Joanie off life support, as doctor suggests, will yet to bring closure. In the course of the narrative, King realizes, in his obliviousness, his wife has drifted away from him and has an affair with another man. Both of his daughters, one precocious and vaguely horrifying and another a recovering drug addict, have been mired in anger and rebellion. While he struggles through bereavement, he has to steer them clear of anger as well. They are the typical children who are ruined by privilege and consigned to aimlessness.

I don’t want to tell her that I’m furious and humiliated and ashamed of my anger toward Joanie. How do I forgive my wife for loving someone else? I think of Brian. I never considered how he must be dealing with this. He can’t see her. He can’t talk to her. He can’t grieve, really. I wonder if Joanie misses him from her coma, if she wishes he could be with her instead of us. (Ch.21, p.132)

As King gathers his wife’s friends and family to say their final goodbyes, he has to grapple with the revelation—to confront Joanie’s lover, a married man who plays a role in lobbying offer for land owned by King’s aristocratic mixed-race (haole) Hawaiian family. The Descendants does not read like a story wallowed in misery. True there is an impending death and an affair, but Kaui Hart Hemmings is a determinedly unsentimental writer. She manages her hazardous subject matter in a dry, detached, and understated way, which I both admire and thank for. The confrontation scene is quickly dispatched.

She seems okay with my disapproval. She’s gotten her story, after all, and she’s beginning to see how much easier physical pain is to tolerate than emotional pain. I’m unhappy that she’s learning this at such a young age. (Ch.10, 71)

King’s narrative voice is plausible and persuasive, in his pared-down lyricism as much as his comic bemusement, which derives from his desperate attempts to rein in his daughters and their disdainful responses to his careful ministrations. The Descendants is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged man, a father’s awakening to responsibility and to love, because, as he ruefully notes, he is not comfortable to showing affection.

283 pp. Random House. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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7 Responses

  1. I recently picked up a copy of this one at a library book sale. I want to read it before seeing the film.

    • I have held back from this one for a long time because it was made into a film starring George Clooney—hype just doesn’t work out well for me. I am glad I re-considered it when I stumbled upon a copy that doesn’t have the movie tie-in cover in Dallas.

  2. I’m sad that I watched the film first instead of reading the book. I think when I saw the film I may not have even been aware of the book. In any case your review sounds like the film follows the book and George Clooney played the part well. I hope you will see the film and let us know what you think.

  3. [...] one from this month could become the most memorable, if not the best books I have read this year. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged [...]

  4. [...] a secret and who sacrifices himself for his wife’s choices will leave you emotionally invested. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings A close look at how a man copes with life as his wife is about to be cut off [...]

  5. […] also read it: Beth Fish Reads, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, and of course Necromancy Never Pays. […]

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