Twenty-one-year-old Leandra was estranged from her sister and had never flown on an airplane or been outside her native North Carolina more than once. That, however, didn't keep her from flying to Massachusetts immediately after her sister, Pamela, asked for her help during a difficult pregnancy. Little did Leandra's much older brother-in-law, William, know when he first saw her at the airport that he would enter into a brief but passionate love affair with her not too long afterward. Little did both of them know that tragedy would soon follow this affair, and again a decade later.
But sometimes the foreknowledge of tragedy can illuminate startling beauty. In Susan Dodd's mature, poignant, and warm-hearted third novel, The Mourner's Bench, she shows the simple and strong ways that two seemingly incompatible people can find the consolation and love they need within each other.
At the novel's beginning, Leandra is living alone in her house on the coast of North Carolina, mending dolls by vocation and still mulling over the deaths of her sister and her sister's baby. William, or Wim, is dying of cancer and is traveling down South to see Leandra for the first time in ten years. Though he has remarried, he has decided that he is going to spend the rest of his short time left with Leandra that is, if she will let him.
Dodd, who has taught at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, demonstrates her mastery of the English language by telling the powerful story in two distinct voices: the literary and decidedly high-brow tone of Wim, and the wise and just plain wise-cracking Southern style of Leandra. The two different voices allow Dodd to show the vulnerabilities of her two characters and the grace with which they accept the emotional baggage they will carry for the rest of their lives.
Through the comfort she conjures through telling details the preparation of a simple meal, the glow from stars overhead, the feel of a rose-colored comforter when one is bone-tired Dodd also shows that, ultimately, the connections that most reward are the ones that need no extra adornment. Loss and tragedy are unavoidable in life (and certainly in the ending of Dodd's novel), but through it all, Leandra and Wim show that the chance to love and be loved is reassuringly near.
Deb Saine is a reviewer in Rock Hill, South Carolina.