Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Losing Clementine

By Ashley Ream. 306 pages, paperback. William Morrow, 2012.

Will she or won't she?

This question lies at the heart of many romantic comedies, and it usually has to do with sex. But for renowned, troubled artist Clementine Pritchard, answering that question is a matter of life and death. After years of mind-numbing medication, dubious psychiatric treatment, and the inability to form healthy attachments to other people, Clementine has decided to end her life. She tells us so in the first chapter, called "30 Days." Each following chapter moves us one day closer to Clementine's planned suicide.

Although she seems incapable of showing affection, there are people who care about Clementine. One is her assistant, Jenny. Jenny is an art school graduate who organizes Clementine's found art materials, cooks her meals, and tries to keep Clementine from self-destructing. She is not aware of Clementine's plans. Like everyone else, she thinks her employer has cancer. This is the lie Clementine spreads. Her ex-husband, Richard, reacts to the news by telling Clementine to fight. He accompanies her to Mexico, even though she will not tell him why they are going. They visit a funeral home, and in one darkly comedic scene, he tries to force her out of a coffin she decides to "test drive."

Clementine's last relationship, and the one that seems most damaging, is with her psychiatrist. Even as he violates every ethical rule by having sex with Clementine, he encourages her to talk about her feelings as if this will overcome the harm he causes her.

Ream does a good job of making us curious about Clementine. It would have been easy to portray her as self-pitying, selfish, and hysterical. She is certainly self-centered, but she did not ask for a mental illness. A subplot involves Clementine's efforts to find her father, who abandoned and traumatized her at an early age. She did not ask for that either, and Clementine deals with the fallout in the only ways she has ever learned.

Clementine's defining characteristic is her relentless pursuit of death. She makes a plan and follows it with almost no deviations. There is no sense that what she is doing is a cry for help; Clementine rejects help in subtle and blatant ways on nearly every page. Yet sensitive readers can empathize with her enough to hope she will, somehow, gather what she needs to go on living.

Will she or won't she? This question matters, but it is not nearly as important as learning how Clementine arrived at a place where taking herself out seemed the most sane and logical decision. Ream's exploration of that story is what will enthrall readers and make the book popular.

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