Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Report: Still Life

8. Louise Penny, Still Life (2005) (5/23/18)

I almost never reread books. I read too few books as it is—once, never mind twice. Plus, I'm a slow reader, so I don't want to "waste" precious time going backward rather than forward.

My most recent book, however, was a revisit. I was in Bookshop Santa Cruz the other day scanning the mystery shelves, and there were several by Louise Penny. Hers is a name that often comes up when discussing good mysteries with fellow aficionados. I remembered Still Life vaguely, remembered enjoying it and its main protagonist, the "cerebral, wise, and compassionate" Inspector Gamache (to quote Kirkus Reviews, from the book's cover). I considered forging ahead with the second volume in the series, but when I read the first paragraphs of Still Life and didn't immediately remember the story, I thought, No, I'll start at the beginning—get to know Gamache all over again.

I'm glad I did. For one thing, there's a passage in the book that has stuck with me since my first reading, though I did not realize the words and ideas were from this book. They're about loss—an author's theory "that life is loss . . . Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs. So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people. Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."

The woman speaking these words, Myrna, now a used-book store owner, was a psychologist before retiring to the small Quebec village of Three Pines, where the central murder and investigation take place. "I lost sympathy with many of my patients," she explains to the inspector. "After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he'd come with the same complaints. 'Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It's not my fault.' For three years I'd been making suggestions, and for three years he'd done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn't changing because he didn't want to. He had no intention of changing." Although many of her clients did work hard, genuinely wanting to get better, "I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life." She goes on:
"Life is change. If you aren't growing and evolving you're standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead 'still' lives, waiting."
 "Waiting for what?"
 "Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it."
 " 'The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.' "
 Myrna leaned forward, animated. "That's it. The fault lies with us, and only us. . . . The vast majority of troubled people don't get it. The fault is here, but so is the solution. That's the grace."
As it happens, this conversation between Myrna and the inspector informs the solution to the murder—of an elderly artist who spent her life chronicling the history of Three Rivers. As I read, I vaguely recalled "who dunnit," but nothing pointed without doubt in that direction—or "nothing" that I twigged to, though of course on reflection there were plenty of little inconsistencies that made me say, "Aha!" by the end. Mysteries are like that. Even on rereading. Fickle memory.

The story is populated by artists and misfits, and bow-hunting figures in. Relationship is at the center of the story as well: within families, between husbands and wives, between old and young, between old-timers and newcomers, within the police force and between the police and those being investigated. The lovely village of Three Pines in autumn plays a role. And we're sorry we did not have a chance to get to know the murdered woman, Miss Jane Neal, in life, though we do learn a lot about her through the eyes of others.

This was Penny's first book, and although at points I wondered if she was losing control of the narrative just a tad, she always managed to pull things back together. And now, I've got the second book on order. I look forward to watching Inspector Gamache work the next scene of the crime.

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