Sadness and loss is an enclosed universe, and no one except the two people within it can know of its complexities, from wordless isolation to built-up, small-town cynicism. Bill Clegg’s first novel--set in Litchfield County, Connecticut--offers us such access to this world of grief by depicting in different voices the inexplicable loss from a house fire. Clegg’s fluid, lyrical prose differentiates and elevates the worlds of June Reid and Lydia Morey, the two central characters, allowing us to get a closer look and find out more about the circumstances that led up to the death of June’s daughter, Lolly, as well as Lolly’s fiancé, Will, and father, Adam--and also Lydia’s son, Luke who was living with June at the time of the fire.
Lolly was to be married the day of the fire. Guests had shown up expecting a wedding and found instead a parking lot filled with police sedans, ambulances, and news vans. While the reason for the fire remains shrouded in mystery, the mistrustful townsfolk of Wells point the finger of blame at Luke, a man with a prison record who caused a scandal by moved in with June, a fifty-year-old woman twice his age. Flower arranger Edith (one of the early voices in the novel) felt that June “had crossed a line” when she shacked up with Luke Morey. The gossip was that Luke was responsible because June was dumping him and he wanted to get back at her; he was also “high that night and had accidentally left the gas going.”
Clegg’s novel begins with the poor, tortured voice of fifteen-year-old Silas and the nightmare surrounding June’s destroyed old stone house. In the months following the tragedy, Silas is strongly drawn to Lydia, the woman he’s heard described as “the sex-mad slut,” the mother of “the crack head...whose negligence blew up a house and killed three people.” Silas used to work for Luke and was at house the day before it happened, but he refuses to talk about it. Lydia, meanwhile, spends most of her time alone at home, only occasionally walking to the local coffee shop. Constantly exposed to the gossips “like horseflies circling her head,” somehow Lydia has gotten used to “the snickering whispers on the grocery store, the nasty gazes from the women, and the lewd once-overs from the men.”
Clegg exposes the brittle crust of both Lydia and June, who left Wells soon after the funeral, traveling in her black Subaru “west or south or something.” She was unable to cope with the same grim facts reported in the local papers and on the news stations: “a gas leak, an explosion, four people dead, a young couple to be married later that day while the mother of the bride stood on the lawn watching it happen, while her ex-husband was asleep upstairs and her
'ex-con' boyfriend in the kitchen.” As sweat soaks June’s clothes and her hands tremble with angst, she remembers tear-streaked Lolly from long ago, always so “furious and disappearing” along with her failed marriage to Adam.
As June attempts to retrace her daughter’s path, first to Bowman Lake,
Montana, then onto the Moonstone Inn on the edge of the Oregon coastline, other characters move in and out of the story.
Each struggles with their own issues: a sudden death off a son; an intransigent colleague; an unfaithful husband; a shattered marriage mired in domestic abuse; and the question of what happened to cause the people that June and Lydia loved so much to be suddenly gone in “a puff of black smoke.” Rebecca and her partner, Jane, wonder at the long-term resident who checked into
Room 6 under an alias and without ID, this quiet woman named Jane “from somewhere east of here.” At the same time, Dale and Mimi, the parents of Will, lay out their grief like never before.
Midway through the novel, Clegg builds on Lydia’s haunted, violent past. Her story isn't chronological but shattered,
her history revealed gradually between epigrammatic present scenes and her past misfortunes. Still bitter from her failed marriage, the journey for Lydia is to reconnect with June while still aware of the fragile irony of her marriage and of June’s long-term connection to her son. Lydia returns to the small apartment building where she has lived on the first floor for more than six years and is forced to take a long late-day look at the town where she has lived her whole life, where there are no friends and no family. In a heartbreaking revelation, Lydia finally meets Silas, who confides in her about his bad choices and how, on the night of the fire, he acted out of a misguided sense of survival. Luke, meanwhile, in spite of his death, has left a legacy, a profusion of love that bonds Lydia and June together and perhaps provides a challenge that will guide them through the complicated years ahead.
Although I was sometimes confused by the alternating voices (some only appear once or twice, then fade into obscurity), I was impressed by the way Clegg shows how sudden tragedy can lead to lives spiraling out of control. While not a particularly uplifting or joyous read, Clegg's
novel takes the struggles and pleasures of family and turns it into art. In the process,
he has reminded us of the dangers of becoming mired in relentless anguish and heartache.