Just like Jackie Townsend’s previous two books, The Absence of Evelyn is a delightfully intriguing read. Townsend has a gift for propelling her quirky yet realistic, mostly lovable characters into unique settings and storylines. Reflecting today’s messy, modern families, The Absence of Evelyn captures--and keeps--your attention.
Townsend’s main character, Rhonda, at first seems a straightforward, take-charge woman celebrating her divorce.
Once an Olympic volleyball star, she shifted her dreams to complement the successful career of her former husband. And to raise three children as well as to start a foundation in his name. “Fixer, maker of dreams, that’s who she was.” A few chapters in, it becomes clear that Rhonda has lost as much as she has given. As the losses multiply exponentially, Rhonda’s control cracks. The realization that she has led quite a spoiled existence pummels her esteem even further.
Ex-hubby Daniel and his two sons from a previous marriage are marginal characters, and deservedly so. Their lack of support and sensitivity make it easy to see why Rhonda feels virtually no pain when she continues to blow up her old life. She careens from emotionless competency to totally undone, driving around city streets in her golf cart. Townsend makes us smile, in concert with her character’s realization that she has become a ridiculous figure.
Rhonda’s tumultuous relationship with 19-year-old daughter Olivia, however, drives the majority of this book’s curves. Olivia pursues an overseas mystery that started with a call from a strange man using her deceased aunt’s phone number. While she is gone, Rhonda continues to sink into her own shortcomings. She recognizes her embarrassing, overzealous efforts to push Olivia into Rhonda’s vision for her daughter--even down to training the diminutive Olivia for volleyball stardom. In high school, quitting the varsity volleyball team, Olivia says
‘I’m a kid Mom. I need to explore my passions.’ If there were a word that made her mom’s skin crawl, passions was it.
Now in college, Olivia struggles with her deep-seated need for Rhonda and her desire for a calling that truly suits her talents and personality. Soon enough, these “minor” problems are overshadowed and Olivia turns inward.
And who is the Evelyn from the cryptic title? The deceased half-sister of Rhonda. Formerly the estranged half-sister of Rhonda. Once a devoted aunt. A doctor who travelled the world, finding her true calling in helping others after the horrors of 9/11. Rhonda’s bottled up grief over her sister mixes with her despair over losing Olivia’s trust, sending her careening to places from the past.
I hesitate to divulge further details, especially descriptions of additional characters that drive this tale to an unforeseen conclusion (I am still thinking about Chapter 37). After all, when an author quotes Joan Didion at the start of her book, you know reckonings are coming.
I closed the box and put it in a closet.
In The Absence of Evelyn, Townsend once again adeptly answers how flawed characters can continue moving toward their future connections. She is also the author of
Reel Life: A Novel and Imperfect Pairings: A Novel.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.
-from Where I Was From