The Good: Interesting characters, Great idea, Some interesting stories, Good interweaving
The Bad: Complicated, Formulaic for much of the book.
The Basics: Sixteen friends and acquaintances get together ever six months to commemorate their lives, which results in dramatic changes for all of them in Living In The Wakes.
[Yes, I am the author. No one else has reviewed the book, so . . .]
Sometimes, there is a novel where the idea is so very simple, one has to ask "How did no one come up with this one before?!" For me, whenever I encounter a novel that has a very simple idea and I see a thick book with a simple premise, I wonder how much that idea is padded out. Living In The Wakes, the second novel by W.L. Swarts has a ridiculously simple premise elaborated in the prologue: in American culture there is no socially acceptable way for friends to express the true depth of the importance of the people in their lives while they are still alive. Instead, we most commonly express ourselves at a wake and by that point, it is too late. So, one of the characters in Living In The Wakes decides to throw a mock-wake for himself and after the success of that wake, his friends congregate every six months to throw a mock-wake for another member of the group.
In stark contrast to Swarts' first novel, Within These Walls (reviewed here!), which lacked a concrete sense of time and place, existing instead in a weird modern time and future that seemed about the same as the past, Living In The Wakes has a very precise sense of time and place. Starting with a very grounded 1997, the world begins to diverge for eight and a half years as the characters change the world. According to the novel's foreword, Swarts finished the book in 1998, so the events alluded to outside the circle of friends were created from the author's imagination. Ironically, Swarts features a background terrorist act around the turn of the millennium and in the notes included in the book, Swarts promises that future books will make the differences between the timeline in this novel and reality will be explained. Either way, Living In The Wakes features background cataclysms which have very real impacts on the characters in the book.
Living In The Wakes starts as ridiculously formulaic. Friends and acquaintances of Lee Willnaught arrive at his mentor's home every six months and tell stories about whomever the wake of the night is for. The wakes begin with everyone knowing Lee, but not all of the characters knowing one another. As the novel progresses, characters come together, arguably because some were forced together by the wakes. But, by the time each person's wake comes up, the characters have something to day about the person being paid tribute to.
Swarts escapes the formula by tying characters together outside the wakes. For example, Reeta becomes romantically involved with the son of Lee's mentor, Edward. That connection leads the book to one of its two significant subplots. Edward, we learn through intimation and discussions at the wakes, but outside the tributes, worked at a clandestine scientific community in Montana in the early 1980s. There, his son Ham, was part of an unspecified experiment which left him unable to have children. Yet, Ham mysteriously gets a woman pregnant and that sends Reeta and Edward on a mission (which is only detailed through its effects) to Montana to stop the company. This lends a science fiction undertone to the novel which is unexpected, but is presented in such a straightforward way that the reader is able to accept it as reality. Swarts forces readers to read between the lines and that makes the very simple idea complex enough to carry through a five hundred page book.
The second subplot requires more of a leap of faith for readers. In spite of one of the main characters being a Protestant minister (the denomination is never specified), two of the characters, Sarah and Ann, dabble in witchcraft. That dabbling becomes an extreme leap when the two characters develop actual magical powers. Again, Swarts tries to keep the book more on the realist fiction side by focusing not on the possible magic the characters do and instead on the effect of that magic. Ann becomes more and more consumed by the desire for power and that forces Sarah to stop her, at great personal peril. That act actually leads to a pretty incredible resolution in the final chapter - which is not at all formulaic compared to the rest of the novel.
In other words, one of the strengths of Living In The Wakes is there is actual character development. But to better understand the book, it helps to know who the characters are. The people who participate in the wakes are:
Lee Willnaught - A young man who has a profound love for his friends, but wants desperately a way to show them how he feels. He is a poet with an on-again, off-again relationship with Alexandra. Mentored by Edward, he used to take care of Ham,
Alexandra - A woman Lee met in college, she is a translator at the United Nations. She has a lot of affection for Lee and tries to bring him out of his shell,
Reeta - A friend of Lee's from high school, she has gone off and become a very successful research scientist. Through the wakes, she becomes closer to Ham and Edward. Edward brings her into the fold at Meta Technologies and when her relationship with Ham falls apart, she gets seduced by the shady scientific corporation,
Ham - A young man who loves music, he lacks the confidence to sell his works until Reeta shows and interest in him,
Ann - Lee's "sister," she is a dancer who becomes intrigued by magic and develops the ability to read minds,
Anna - A Southern belle and teacher friend of Lee. She falls for Edward's friend Dougan, which complicates things when they have a falling out,
Sarah - A shy friend of Lee's from college, she befriends Michelle much the way Lee befriended Edward. She has a quietly tragic arc as she searches for love outside and ends up hurt a lot,
Garret - A sarcastic young man who no one seems to like. He is an architect who pisses off most everyone,
Earl - Lee's "brother," he bounces from job to job, all the while trying to find a relationship that works as well as steady employment,
Fox - a young woman Lee met in college, she has a strong relationship to land and begins to buy up land which she returns to nature,
Parker - Dougan and Edward's boss at TechNow, he is gay and has spent decades mourning the loss of his true love,
Arnold - An older friend of Lee's who works in Hollywood, he connects with Parker and offers him a way to move forward,
Father Ted - An alcoholic minister, he is sobered up and comes to understand the nature of Meta Technologies. He tries to convert some of the companions, with limited results,
Dougan - An older man whose youth passed him by until Anna walked in the door,
Michelle - Ham's mother, she is an able psychologist. Smart and compassionate, she loves Edward and accepts the sacrifices he made to keep Ham alive. She begins to mentor Sarah after one of her patients kills himself, with questionable results,
and Edward - An engineer who has always wanted to have his own business, he finds that before he can move ahead, he has to clean up from his very messy past.
Living In The Wakes is most often about consequences. Almost all of the characters tell stories that tell how others changed their life, but the stories about what is going on in their lives outside the wakes tend to be about confronting the consequences of prior actions. That makes the book more universally accessible than some of the stories within the story and makes for a book that urges readers to actually live and share with those they love. That is a universal sentiment and Swarts manages to express it well.
Despite the frequently formulaic nature of Living In The Wakes, there is something for everyone within the pages and it has broader themes that are explored in a compelling fashion.
For other books about how people relate, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
A Long Day's Journey Into Night - Eugene O'Neill
Keep The Aspidistra's Flying - George Orwell
For other book reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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