Seek the Living by Ashley Warlick
I don’t like romance stories. I don’t like following the tale of a woman in search of the perfect man, planning the perfect marriage, becoming perfectly pregnant, all within some torrid wind of dramatic events only further ensuring the protagonist and her beau as star-crossed mates. Seek the Living, by Ashley Warlick, is not a romance story. It is, however, the story of a woman and her marriage, her hopeless desire to become pregnant, a past affair that continues to haunt her thoughts, and a family that requires her saving efforts. Refreshing in its lack of the sappy or overdrawn, the story is simply that of Joan Patee and a period of her life. And her voice, in Warlick’s clear, picturesque tongue, can only be described as one thing: hopelessly romantic.
It’s difficult to tell exactly where this story lies. It begins with Joan tending to her brother and his girlfriend, Denny and Hedy, when Denny is found to be digging up artifacts from a graveyard. While Joan is concerned for the state of her brother’s relationship, the focus soon shifts to Joan’s own marriage with her husband, Marshall, who is often away from home due to his job investigating disastrous accidents. The entirety of the book is in Joan’s mind, much of it spent expressing her ardent love for her husband: “He is never home, but I knew this when I married him and loved him so much I thought I wouldn’t mind. It has not proved to be the truth, but I hold myself responsible. There was a time when I thought whatever I could get would be enough.” When Marshall does come home, Joan is absorbed with her desire to become pregnant, marking each month that it does not happen and wondering how she must appear to a store clerk when she finds herself absently clutching baby clothes. Though she is consumed with Marshall’s absence when he is away, she is equally preoccupied by his presence when he is there, making her story one of longing and unattainable love.
Just beyond this, however, is the story of an affair, involving Joan and the woman her lover later came to marry. With her lover, Bannon, now dead, Joan feels a sort of inevitable connection with his widow Gail, though the two never truly make the effort to become friends. This too feeds into Joan’s character as one who pines for great love. She recounts the affair they had shortly before his marriage to Gail, all the while making it evident that his death is as great a loss to her as it is to his wife. “I would be different if Bannon were still alive,” Joan muses. “I would have made different bargains with myself. I would not want so much from everyone so on the spot because I could trust they’d be there in the morning, or some soon morning in the future, when I could ask again.” How she deals with her continuing feels for Bannon while battling her doubts and fears for her marriage mark the conflict Joan must resolve within the book’s pages.
These three plot points are sufficient to support the bulk of the novel, but it is Warlick’s writing, the way she handles her words, that makes Seek the Living a worthwhile read. The entire novel, with the exception of Joan’s telling of her affair with Bannon, is told in the first person present and it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to keep from abusing this and exploiting it as a gimmick to make otherwise dull writing seem interesting. Joan’s narrative reads like actual thoughts and the sentiment she intimates feels true. When Joan describes the love letters Marshall composes while away on the job, it is Warlick who successfully conveys the romance in this practice and makes Joan’s wistfulness real. And because Warlick’s ability to describe Joan’s thoughts and feelings is so precise, that the stories themselves are a bit confusing is almost negligible.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t always know what was happening with the plot or how each story figured in the timeline. Joan is in the now and the affair and the history with Denny is in the past, but how far back is difficult to tell. Though the narrative reads favorably as a fount of Joan’s thoughts, the form doesn’t lend itself well to this type of exposition. The main story could be either of the three plot points -– that of Joan’s relationship with her brother, her husband, or her dead lover -– but it’s more a compliment to the author’s writing that she can incorporate several issues in one book and make each seem like the pivotal point. So what if I didn’t understand exactly how everything falls into place the first time around? With a story about love that reveals the longing and uncertainty that is far more prevalent in reality than the conventional maudlin undertones, I won’t be reluctant to give Seek the Living another go.
Seek the Living by Ashley Warlick
Houghton Mifflin Company