Review: The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White

The Qualities of Wood is only the second review request I’ve accepted.  I’ve been getting a lot of requests lately but turn most of them down. But I liked Mary’s email and I liked the way she described her book.  It  turned out to be a truly enjoyable and thought-provoking read.  So much so, that I wrote the author and asked if I could interview her for this blog.  I’ll post the interview some time next week.

Wood is about a young married couple, Vivian and Nowell, who move out to a very small town in the Midwest after Nowell’s grandmother dies.  Nowell is working on his second novel (a thriller) and while he takes advantage of a quiet place to write, Vivian is cleaning and packing up the house to get it ready for sale.

Vivian is ambivalent about the move; she’s had to quit her office job (which is admittedly not a career) and now has to fill her time in a strange place where she doesn’t know anyone.  Nowell is extremely absorbed in his writing, so Vivian is left to herself most of the time.

Immediately after the move, a young woman is found in the woods behind their house.  The police believe she tripped and fell, but Vivian is suspicious, hearing rumors about the girl, her family, and the strange neighbor that lives behind the woods.

The real mystery, however, is Vivian and Nowell’s marriage, as Nowell spends more and more time writing and Vivian grows to question their life together.  She struggles to learn more about her husband and his family through the experience of packing up his grandmother’s possessions.  However, Vivian and Nowell’s marriage becomes even more strained when Nowell’s brother Lonnie drops in for an extended visit.  Nowell is the good brother, Lonnie is the screw-up.  Nowell brings his new wife Dot, who gets along with everyone, which is fortunate because Vivian doesn’t trust Lonnie and Lonnie resents Nowell.  There’s all kinds of buried tension between the two brothers, yet they also seem to genuinely love each other.

White explains the title in this paragraph:

Vivian remembered staring at her desktop in grammar school, during rainy-day, heads-down games or boring lessons, and noticing the variety within the wood, the scant pencil remains from the students before her, the distinct markings of the grain.  Like a fingerprint, each section unique to itself and to the seer.  Eyes can become discerning, she thought, if you look long enough.  The sky, the qualities of wood.

White avoids turning her characters into stereotypes.  Lonnie could have been ridiculous, but she keeps him human and sympathetic.  Vivian could have been a doormat, and Dot the cute-but-simpleminded relative, but the characters are none of these things.  No one’s a villain and no one’s a saint in this book.

In addition to the complex layering of family dynamics, there were some things that really stood out to me about this book.

First, White really explores the dynamic Vivian has with her brother and her in-laws.  Vivian has put her whole life on hold to take care of the Gardiner family, having no say of who comes and goes, living in a house that’s not hers and a town that’s unfamiliar, giving up her job and giving up her husband to his writing career.  White deftly contrasts Vivian’s life with the Gardiner family with her own memories and experiences with her own family.  Neither family is good nor bad, just different.  The point is, Vivian has to adapt every day to this new family — which is what we do in marriage.

Second, Vivian isn’t sure she wants children.  Nowell wants children and it’s a problem between them.  Vivian struggles to articulate why she doesn’t want them, but she’s willing to place her marriage on the line rather than be pressured in to having children she isn’t ready for.  There’s a scene in the attic where she and Dot uncover boxes of old baby clothes.  Dot oohs and ahhs, and Vivian wants them out of her sight.  She puts them in the garage sale pile.

As someone who doesn’t want children, I can tell you that finding a complex, likeable character who doesn’t want children is just about impossible.  I can also tell you that on the rare occasions that I find one, there’s a part of me that cheers and doesn’t want her to back down.  Vivian looks at her older friend Katherine, who seems perfectly happy without children, even though it wasn’t by choice, in the same way I look to other women who don’t have children, to measure what their lives are like.  White is a parent of four, and I worried that she’d find some convenient way to resolve this conflict that would result in Vivian deciding she wants children after all – maybe a childhood trauma resolved, or maybe Vivian decides to be a less “selfish” wife.  Thankfully, White doesn’t treat the not-wanting children as a character flaw in Vivian, a fact that I really appreciated.

Third, White treats the town as a character in her book in a way that’s thoughtful and interesting.  The town was founded by a man named Clement, and during the book the town celebrates the anniversary of its founding.  Many of the townspeople are somehow related to Clement, while at the same time some residents are resentful of the Clement name and its suggested elitism.  Still others are concerned about the way the town’s history has been “whitewashed” with no mention of how Native Americans or other races were treated.  At one point, Vivian talks to her mother about Clement, complaining about how one-sided the town’s history is.  But her mother, who is a writer and historian, has a different  perspective, challenging Vivian to think about the initiative and hard work that must have gone into founding a town in the wilderness.

I like books that are mysteries but the main story isn’t the mystery.  The real story here is Vivian’s struggle to make sense of her life, from her lack of a job to her worries about being a parent to her difficulty making a place for herself amidst her husband’s family.  She takes on the work of sorting out the Gardiner family without half as much complaint as I would have had, and yet at the young age of 28, clearly has a lot to figure out about herself.

I had two small complaints about the book.  The first is that White writes with so much detail it can be distracting at times.  For example, Vivian notices things like the smell of sweat on her sister-in-law’s body.  Now, I don’t have the best sense of smell but that’s just not the kind of thing I’m ever going to notice unless I’m really up close and personal with someone.  That’s just an example.  I appreciate detail in writing but at times it detracted from the big picture.

The second complaint I had comes at the end of this paragraph:

Above the steps that led into the building, Vivian noticed a group of people surrounding a table.  One was Deputy Bud Winchel, outfitted in his uniform just as he had been the other times she’d met him.  To his right, a slender woman in a cream-colored suit hugged a black notebook against her chest.  Next to her stood another woman, as expensively dressed but shabbier in appearance, in part because of her curly brown locks, which sprung and leapt from her head like an explosion.

First of all, this level of detail is completely unnecessary for two non-characters in the story.  Second of all, and much more importantly, why do people insist on seeing curly hair as sloppy?  I’ve tried to explain to my husband the bias against curly hair – people are always considered classier in movies (and apparently books) when they have sleek hair.   The phrase “sprung and leapt from her head like an explosion” describes my hair quite well, but I didn’t appreciate the “shabby” part.

That aside, I was impressed by the complexity in this book, especially coming from a first time novelist.  In fact, this book kept me thinking for days.  I can’t say that about many mystery novels.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the author but no other compensation.  The author had no input into this review. 

  6 comments for “Review: The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White

  1. February 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I have fine, very straight hair that will not hold a curl well, and I’ve coveted curly hair my whole life! First perm age 8, permed throughout most of the 80s (wasn’t everyone?!?) and part of the 90s. But you’ve made me think about it and yes, curly hair is often messy in stories. A prejudice I hadn’t thought about!

    This is a fabulous review and I’m so gratified by the thought and effort you’ve given it, and by the fact that you were able to tap into many of the important themes. And of course, that you enjoyed the book. I hope your readers will come back next week to read the insightful interview questions you’ve given me!

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