The story of Joan Patee is told as two running narratives. The first is set in the present time and is told from a first-person perspective as Joan struggles to deal with her childless marriage, her absent husband, and her brother, a shiftless, unreliable man who isn't there when she needs him. The other aspect of the story deals with Joan's past and the ways in which the mysteries of eight years ago have shaped the present. The tapestry of Joan's life is woven deftly together by author Ashley Warlick, though the novel unfortunately fails to ever gain significant momentum.
The novel begins with Joan's brother Denny, who is embroiled within a bizarre operation involving old bones and war materials, but it soon shifts away from this unpromising start to focus on examining Joan's past. Old loves and new are intertwined in Joan's life, affecting her and others with a startling immediacy that only at the conclusion of the novel feels contrived. Until then, we are allowed into her life to examine the way the threads of others combine to weave the cloth of living. Denny's story continues throughout, but it fades and detracts from the main thrust, which is Joan.
Indeed, it is a shame that the novel has such a tight plot, and that so many of its events seem to exist purely to push the plot forward. Warlick is at her most interesting when she lets Joan go, when she allows her character the freedom to simply be. Sadly, this rarely occurs. Instead we watch as the dots connect, as the disparate threads become something much less than the whole. As a plot, the novel fails. As an examination of Joan Patee, there is success.
Joan's somewhat estranged husband, Marshall, provides the solid middle chunk of the novel. He spends his time in other cities, performing jobs the duties of which we receive only tangential hints. But he arrives home a third of the way into the book, and it is here that we begin to learn of not Joan the person, but Joan the woman: “Marshall wakes me with his mouth. He has the most beautiful mouth, a full mouth, full lips like a baby's, and I wake to his mouth on my shoulder, his beautiful lips, his teeth.” Gone is the sad moping of the lonely heart. Joan and Marshall's relationship is never properly explained during the course of the novel; instead, we watch as they mesh and slide away from one another, the jagged pieces of their relationship never quite connecting. But there is harmony and love, for all that the attraction seems largely physical. Joan revels in her husband's masculinity, loving that he is hers, that she is his. Her love becomes something that is not feminine or submissive, aggressive or jealous - it simply is. She loves him, he loves her.
Writing from a first-person perspective allows the author to delve deep within the mind and heart of a character, something Warlick clearly relishes. We learn of Joan through her descriptions of her family, through the fond memories she has of a brother turned bad, and through her musings about her life, her past and her future. Warlick writes Joan as a conversationalist, a chatty, intimate narrator who isn't afraid to bare her thoughts and feelings to the reader. Unfortunately, Joan often embarks on what one could charitably call “literary” descriptions, and these more often fail than succeed - not because they are bad, but because they break the character of Joan. They stop her from being a person and make her a literary device. Grand descriptions and intricate metaphors are not the speech of Joan; they are conceits of the author. Yet they are shown through Joan's eyes and thoughts, and the novel suffers as a consequence.
An odd narrative device is that of the short, punchy paragraphs. Often during a critical scene or event in Joan's life, the narrator will choose to write a paragraph that is a single sentence, short and brief, which ultimately signifies nothing. It is a shame this technique is used, because it insults the reader's intelligence, presuming that we are unable to understand the salient matter of plot and exposition. Presumably, Warlick assumes that these short punches of writing are effective in heightening the atmosphere and intensity of the novel, but this is never the case.
It is when Warlick allows Joan to dwell on topics that the novel becomes its most enjoyable. Joan is a thinker, always willing to examine her thoughts and feelings. We learn the details of her life and relationships through these thoughts, which only very rarely become trite.
For moments I think he's angry with me, for my clattering teeth and wringing hands, then that he's angry in my stead, and then it has nothing to do with me or now, but just an old simmering anger that he's always had in him coursing to the surface, more than he can hold.
These are the words of a confident thinker, someone who is used to explaining herself and others through internal dialogue.
Warlick's third novel has the confidence of a sure hand, though it lacks the artistry of a truly great writer. There are scenes that seem “written” rather than narrated through Joan's eyes, just as the plot shines too heavily through the events of the novel. Ashley Warlick is young, and it can be assumed that she will continue writing, to perhaps hone and polish her primary skill, which is that of the loner's introspection, the sad, meandering thoughts the lonely person comforts themselves with. At that, she is a writer. For the rest, merely a craftsman.