Living in Western diplomatic privilege with cooks and maids and drivers, the women in the new novel “Absolution” spend their days attending luncheons, lectures and cocktail parties as the Vietnam War rumbles in the background.
It’s 1963 Saigon, but the wives of ambitious American attorneys and engineers are focused on writing clever letters with French phrases to be slipped into light blue airmail envelopes and the daily dressing rituals that include girdles, stockings and white dress shields fastened with tiny gold safety pins.
Alice McDermott’s ninth novel perfectly captures the manner and mood of that era and the constricted lives that women led as “helpmeets” for their husbands. McDermott won the National Book Award for her novel “Charming Billy.”
In “Absolution,” Irish American newlywed Tricia is just 23, proud of her handsome engineer husband who is on loan to the Navy and hoping they can quickly start a family during their time in southeast Asia.
Tricia soon meets Charlene, who is slightly older and has three children. Charlene is dedicated to doing good by raising money to stuff baskets with toys and candy that she and the other ladies deliver to hospitals and later a leper colony. Tricia is pulled into the group of women right away.
Barbie dolls are a new trend and Charlene comes up with an idea for a doll outfit that the other Americans can’t resist: a traditional Vietnamese ensemble of slim white pants and overdress, topped off with a conical hat.
Barbie’s Vietnamese-style getup made by a talented local seamstress is huge success and Charlene raises ever more cash for her charitable deeds.
The words “absolution” and “absolved” pop up repeatedly in the book that serves as a nod to “ The Quiet American,” another look at early U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Its author, English writer Graham Greene, was a Catholic convert who used his own novels to study the moral questions of modern times.
Tricia, raised a devout Catholic in the years before Vatican II, learns during her year in Vietnam about obligation, grace and sacrifice even as everything seems to collapse around her. She’s looking for absolution — a forgiveness of sins — in an imperfect world she can’t control and she doesn’t always understand.
Tricia finally has some questions answered 60 years later, when Charlene’s daughter, Rainey, finds her living as a widow in Washington and they relive their memories of that time.
Just like America’s involvement in Vietnam, Tricia looks back to see that even good intentions can have terrible consequences, but absolution is possible in the end.
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