Saturday, February 9, 2013

Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream

Losing Clementine
by Ashley Ream

What a nice surprise this book is. When I began reading Ashley Ream's Losing Clementine, I wasn't so sure about it. The narrator, Clementine Pritchard, seemed to speak as though she were trying to show off how clever she is, and at times, it comes off a bit strained. However, that strained cleverness does have an underlying point — Clementine is very, very sad and tired of life, and making jokes keeps her functional. She's decided to spend a month getting her affairs in order, and then she's going to kill herself. Each chapter is titled with how many days she has left to go. Eventually, I settled into her voice and her situation, and the interesting thing about the book is that I found myself not necessarily rooting for her life one way or the other. When it comes to a subject as touchy as suicide, that's an interesting mental space in which to be.

I couldn't live with the pills. That I knew for certain. And life without them was dangerous, not only for me, but for those who got too close to me. That I knew for certain, too. So this was it. The only possible choice.

"Good-bye, Lithium," I said and flushed away the swirling pharmacy.

Somewhere in the bay, fish were overdosing on anti-psychotics. Under no circumstances should they be operating heavy machinery.

Clementine is an LA-area artist of moderate renown, divorced but on friendly terms with her ex, Richard, and she is quite annoyed that another artist, Elaine Sacks, has been piggybacking (or straight up copying) her work for years. Clementine's assistant, Jenny, does the usual tasks of priming canvasses and washing brushes, but also makes sure she eats. In the heat of deciding to end her life, she'd fired Jenny, but one doesn't lose such a vital part of their life so easily. Also, she has a cranky cat with an awful name, Chuckles.

When it comes to family history, Clementine has had it rough. Her mother and sister are dead, and her father sodded off years before, so she spent the latter half of her childhood with her aunt, Trudy. Mental instability is hinted at, but we must wait until we're further into the story before we know all the details. She decides that she should find out what happened to her father before she dies.

Aunt Trudy gave an exasperated sigh that sounded like it used a little spittle in the process.

"Leave it be, Clementine."

"Tell me what you remember, and I'll go home, and you can get back to your sunbathing."

"I've already gotten back to my sunbathing."

I waited.

It worked.

"He was an accountant. He worked for a firm in Encino, an accounting firm. Parker and something, it was called. He had a mustache that he was always getting food stuck in, especially yellow mustard from hot dogs. He had skinny legs and liked to wear his watch on the underside of his wrist, Lord knows why. He was tall like you. Your mother married him young and had you girls young. They met in the lobby of a movie house. Dated maybe six months before he popped the question. Jesus, Clementine, he could be dead for all we know. What does it matter?"

Clementine is not sure why it matters, just that does. All loose ends must be accounted for. When stressed or questioned about the various rash decisions she's making, she either makes a self-deprecating joke, changes the subject, or mildly insults the question-asker. I liked that Ashley Ream writes about these defense mechanisms in a very normal way because we all know people like Clementine, whether they are firmly suicidal or not. The bits about the various behaviors of artists are also amusing and reality-based.

As the countdown progresses, we learn more about what lead to it, and the various resolving moments that Clementine experiences I cannot really describe without ruining the book too much. What I will say is that it's not overly sentimental, nor is it a morality tale. The "trying to be clever" complaints I had in the first thirty pages or so start to simmer into legitimately funny. And even though Chuckles has an awful name, he exhibits that great difficult, yowling behavior that makes me love cats. (I am cat-deficient in life, so until I get another pair of them, I must settle for cats in my media.)

What I think that Losing Clementine confirmed for me is that my "read one-third of the pages before deciding" book rule is a good one. Unless it is so very difficult to enjoy at all (a reading life is too short for that), it's respectful to give the book an honest chance. I'm glad I did.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book as an uncorrected proof, so my quoted passages may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

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