2 out of 4 stars
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What does it mean to be redeemed? A former book of the month with glowing reviews, William H. Coles’s 2015 McDowell bills itself as a story of redemption. Readers have praised its complex characters and insight into personal transformation. However, I was left consulting Merriam-Webster and wondering which of the six listed definitions of “redeem” really applied.
Hiram McDowell is a successful surgeon with many side-ventures. He has never been accused by those close to him of being a likable guy. Hiram is charming. He is able to wow you as a host if there’s something in it for him, like donations to his charity or good publicity. But he’s just as willing to leave you to die on a mountaintop and think nothing of it. You didn’t have what it took to save yourself; Hiram did.
No bad action seems capable of catching up with Hiram. While he continues to attain public success, however, his children, stepchildren, and grandchildren flounder. They struggle to form and maintain meaningful relationships, and they often require Hiram’s funding along with strategic phone calls to keep their careers going. Hiram is happy to do what it takes to prevent their personal issues from damaging his image. He also seems to have some genuine affection for them, but he is emotionally unavailable. Lacking any guiding principles himself, he is unable to offer guidance. When an unfathomable tragedy strikes the family, Hiram’s actions result in him being charged with a serious crime that carries a hefty prison sentence. His life of political appointments, surgical success, and chairing major organizations is over.
Part Two of the novel documents Hiram’s struggle to survive and make sense of his life following this fall from grace. His main project is his memoir. The characters from part one of the novel return to try to woo him into publishing the memoir.
This, then, is redemption? Publication of a memoir? Hiram also commits some good acts in Part Two, of course. This seems to include having sex with a lonely woman with whom he wishes he could stay but, for practical reasons, cannot. (This is different from Part One in which he has sex with various women without wishing he could stay.) I share Coles’s passion for art as a transformative tool, but I am nevertheless struggling to swallow the premise of this book.
I also could not find any characters I cared about. For a while, I enjoyed and even admired skeptical journalist Paige Sterling. When Paige started obsessing over how she was “unappreciated as a woman these days”, and wishing even her former creep of a boss would pay her some physical attention, though, she lost me. The only other standout was an errant preacher with an unusual relationship to religion whom Hiram fell in with for a few pages. The conversation between them may have been the only thing I liked in this book.
I found the transitions to be abrupt and to leave out important bits of action. On more than one occasion, I assumed that I must have skipped a section because of how abruptly important plot points were introduced. I combed the preceding chapters to try to find what I missed only to find nothing. There are significant grammar and word-choice errors throughout the book, as well as at least one occasion where a character is called by the incorrect name. Tense was sometimes inconsistent.
A few storylines felt pointless; I waited in vain to find out how they would fit meaningfully into the context of the novel. I am not sure why readers spent so much time in Nepal or what the storyline of Hiram’s son and daughter falling in love with a young Nepalese woman added. The novel’s reflection that even Hiram’s Nepalese mistress “would not know what love meant to Americans... other than what might be seen in movies and on what television was available, and that was hardly representative of selfless love between two humans in a way Nepalese women would never experience or understand” (page 221 in the PDF version) rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I have to wonder what gives William H. Coles expertise on the inner lives of Nepalese women.
Potential readers should be aware there are some sexually explicit scenes. I did not feel these meaningfully added to the book nor took away from it. They were more or less tastefully done, although I found Coles’s attempts to capture feelings of romance to be cringeworthy. For example, “It makes her love him in the way a mother loves her firstborn... and the way a maiden craves her Adam” (page 515 in the PDF version). It is a stretch to imagine these two kinds of love co-exist; the first I find creepy and off-putting in lover rather than tender and sweet.
Again, though, the novel’s greatest sin is its failure to deliver on its premise. Characters in Part Two reflect both on how much Hiram has changed for the better at the same time they purport he was never bad to begin with. One cannot be redeemed from wrongdoing that was never really wrong. And writing about one's actions is not the same thing as atoning for them.
I give McDowell 2 out of 4 stars. This book wasn’t for me, and I believe it has significant room for improvement. However, a 1-star rating would be unnecessarily harsh. McDowell succeeds in painting vivid pictures of characters in the context of a narrative whole. I’ve read worse. Clearly, there are readers who have enjoyed this book, although I honestly cannot identify why and so I cannot make a prediction as to whom it might appeal. I feel readers who like character-driven narratives and psychologically complex books—readers to whom this book should most appeal— can find stories more worth their time. And so a 3-star rating or higher feels dishonest. Grammar and word choice issues also make it difficult to give this book a higher rating. Readers who are more interested in plot-driven than character-driven books will likely not enjoy McDowell.
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