Kaui Hart Hemmings
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
289 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 05-15-2007
Date Reviewed: 08-26-2007
You might not want to know Matt King in real life, but he makes one hell of a narrator for Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel 'The Descendants'. He's not a rat or a bore by any means, but just a low-key attorney who has spent much of his life and all of his marriage with his nose to the grindstone, proving that he is worthy of the huge inheritance he has been tasked with managing. Let's just say, he's not the kind of guy who would stand out at a party, unless you were privy to his inner dialogue. It's Matt King's inner voice as he relates his journey of discovery, waiting for his wife to die, that drives 'The Descendants', and turns a rather milquetoast man into a compulsively readable character. He's funny as hell and he's not going to take it anymore.
It won’t take any reader long to discover that Hemmings is a brilliant writer, capable of a seemingly non-stop series of wise and witty observations of the awful truth. King starts the novel standing over his wife's comatose body. Joanie King was, no is beautiful, but those hot looks aren't going to help her now. Matt gets the word that there's no hope, and according to the living will left behind by his obviously willful wife, they're going to shut her off momentarily.
Matt also gets two daughters in the bargain, the children he never really had to deal with because he was busy winning bread. Scottie is ten years old and precociously weird, given to talking about sex in a manner that would alarm any adult who wasn't dealing with a comatose wife. Alex is eighteen years old and normal, not in the best manner. She had a drug problem, but now avers that she's all better. Of course that's a bit of a hard sell when King has to pick her up at school, only to find her shit-faced drunk hitting golf balls on an athletic field.
Still, King is an all-pro muddler, and he'll muddle through this crisis one task at a time. But even his professional muddling instincts are challenged when it proves that Joanie was having an affair at the time of her death. Heck, she might have been heading for a divorce. It's not like King doesn't have enough to deal with. Squabbling relatives await his decision over what to do with their land. Convert it to cash by selling to WalMart or keep it in the family? Everybody wants the money. It appears that perhaps even his soon-to-be late wife had plans as well. Watch Matt King muddle. Listen to Kaui Hart Hemmings sing.
'The Descendants' has all the stuff of life. The characters are all utterly realistic, with nobody deployed only in service of the plot. Hemmings catches all the poetry of our most minor interactions without effort, and King's rueful learning process is consistently hilarious. Hemmings deals extensively in "the truth hurts" humor, pointing out with clarity what most of us would prefer to politely ignore in our lives. She uses the deep history of Hawaii to create a timeless feel. In many ways, 'The Descendants' is itself a descendant, the thoroughly modern version of the classic British novel of manners. Send Jane Austen to the Big Island and Hemmings might conceivably have some competition. Hemmings' observations encompass not just the family but the culture as well. The uncomfortable truths she excavates about the King family prove to be pretty universal
While Hemmings ample and generous sense of humor dominates much of the novel, her visions of the characters are nonetheless true. This results in a book that earns its poignant moments with a truly enjoyable assurance. We're cheering Matt King as he bumbles his way towards a torrent of decisions. And we're cheering Hemmings as well, who proves herself to be a writer of great talent. 'The Descendants' is funny enough to appeal to any reader who knows the truth shall set you free—to laugh at yourself.