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Reviews of Absolution by Alice McDermott


A Novel

by Alice McDermott

Absolution by Alice McDermott X
Absolution by Alice McDermott
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  • Published:
    Oct 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jacob Lenz-Avila
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About this Book

Book Summary

A riveting account of women's lives on the margins of the Vietnam War, from the renowned winner of the National Book Award.

You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives.

American women—American wives—have been mostly minor characters in the literature of the Vietnam War, but in Absolution they take center stage. Tricia is a shy newlywed, married to a rising attorney on loan to navy intelligence. Charlene is a practiced corporate spouse and mother of three, a beauty and a bully. In Saigon in 1963, the two women form a wary alliance as they balance the era's mandate to be "helpmeets" to their ambitious husbands with their own inchoate impulse to "do good" for the people of Vietnam.

Sixty years later, Charlene's daughter, spurred by an encounter with an aging Vietnam vet, reaches out to Tricia. Together, they look back at their time in Saigon, taking wry account of that pivotal year and of Charlene's altruistic machinations, and discovering how their own lives as women on the periphery—of politics, of history, of war, of their husbands' convictions—have been shaped and burdened by the same sort of unintended consequences that followed America's tragic interference in Southeast Asia.

A virtuosic new novel from Alice McDermott, one of our most observant, most affecting writers, about folly and grace, obligation, sacrifice, and, finally, the quest for absolution in a broken world.


THERE WERE SO MANY COCKTAIL PARTIES in those days. And when they were held in the afternoon we called them garden parties, but they were cocktail parties nonetheless.

You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives.

Most days, I would bathe in the morning and then stay in my housecoat until lunch, reading, writing letters home—those fragile, pale blue airmail letters with their complex folds; evidence, I think now, of how exotic distance itself once seemed.

I'd do my nails, compose the charming bread-and-butter notes we were always exchanging—wedding stationery with my still-new initials, real ink, and cunning turns of phrase, bits of French, exclamation marks galore. The fan moving overhead and the heat encroaching even through the slatted blinds of the shaded room, the spice of sandalwood from the joss stick on the dresser.

Out for a luncheon or a lecture or a visit to the crowded market, and then another bath when I woke from my ...

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BookBrowse Review


McDermott seems interested in writing about degrees of marginality, of guilt, and of goodness. The women endure their husbands' sexist jokes and the patronizing attitudes of male doctors they often work alongside in their mission to provide relief to the ill; yet they themselves tend to otherize the Vietnamese people, despite their best intentions. And of course there's the bigger picture: the reason the Americans are "cocooned" in the country in the first place is an unstable mixture of quixotic democratic fervor and pure greed. Absolution takes a thought-provoking fresh perspective on a much-fictionalized chapter of history, which is best represented by the fact that it elides John F. Kennedy's assassination and focuses instead on when the First Lady gave birth to a stillborn child and was the last person to find out about it after the media quickly broke the story. "You have to understand what it was like in those days," Tricia writes, "for us, the wives."..continued

Full Review Members Only (704 words)

(Reviewed by Jacob Lenz-Avila).

Media Reviews

Oprah Daily
Damning and dazzling, this is the story of a Vietnam we never got in history class―a story of innocence lost, the bounds of womanhood tested, and our nation held to account.

Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
For four decades now, McDermott has written one exquisite novel after another, but her latest, a poignant tale of women and girls living on the periphery of the Vietnam War, may just be her masterpiece ... In this richly imagined novel, packed with unforgettable characters, McDermott soars in a profound quest of moral inquiry.

Bethanne Patrick, Los Angeles Times
[McDermott] has taken the worn tapestry of the war novel and turned it inside out, exposing the original colors and throwing the battles and bivouacs into stark relief.

Hamilton Cain, The Washington Post
Crystalline, searching ... McDermott spins gold from sensuous details ... Beautifully conceived and executed, Absolution stares down the assumptions and loyalties that cage us all.

Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
Powerful ... Sharp-eyed ... [Absolution] addresses the question of forgiveness on both a personal and political level. Few writers have written about moral qualms with such sensitivity.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
A work of consistently beautiful prose ... McDermott, who can easily build dramatic urgency out of even the most mundane tasks, evokes an eerie sense of instability and future implosion ... The question of how to help others—and how much it costs to do so ... is ever-present for Charlene and Patricia, who maintain, in the brief time when their lives overlap, a bizarre, conflicted, co-dependent friendship that is utterly fascinating.

Jennifer Egan, The New York Times
Enveloping ... Retrospect amplifies McDermott's narrative approach; her work lives in its shimmering details ... The debacle of America's involvement in Vietnam might easily have overdetermined McDermott's story, and it is a measure of her skill that Absolution maintains an oblique relationship to the war ... What difference might it have made, for everyone, if those wives had been given a choice in the decision-making? Without posing this question directly, Absolution leaves the reader in its provocative shadow.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR
It's futile to predict where a great writer's boundless imagination will take us and, as Absolution affirms, McDermott is a great writer ... McDermott possesses the rare ability to evoke and enter bygone worlds—pre-Vatican II Catholicism, pre-feminist-movement marriages—without condescending to them. She understands that the powerhouses can dominate the helpmeets. She also understands that playing God is the role of a lifetime—and every human actor should turn it down.

Booklist (starred review)
Sublime ... McDermott is a resplendent writer of lacerating insights, gorgeous lyricism, and subtle yet exacting moral reckoning, here illuminating shades of good and evil within a bubble of Western privilege and prejudice in a country on the brink of war, concentrating the inane and cruel misogyny women faced in Barbie, that freshly energized icon of female paradox and power.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
For more than 40 years, McDermott's deep understanding of human nature and wizardry in creating characters has been the seedbed of one bestselling, award-winning novel after another. Now she has outdone herself with an exquisitely conceived and executed novel that explores her signature topic, moral obligation, against the backdrop of the fraught time preceding the Vietnam War ... This transporting, piercing, profound novel is McDermott's masterpiece.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House
Alice McDermott has always been one of our greatest writers but here she exceeds every expectation. Absolution is one of the finest contemporary novels I've read. It is a moral masterpiece.

Author Blurb Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried
With Absolution, Alice McDermott delivers another elegantly written, immaculately conceived novel that immerses the reader in the contradictions and moral ambiguities of the human heart. McDermott is a storyteller who aims for the stars. Absolution takes us there, by way of wartime Saigon, and with a powerful reminder that good intentions can have consequences that jerk us awake over a lifetime. What a splendid, compelling book this is.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Protesting Operation Alert

Black-and-white photo of Dorothy Day in profile, wearing dark cap and glasses, 1950s Alice McDermott's novel about the humanitarian efforts of American corporate wives living in Vietnam in the early '60s, Absolution, takes a detour to New York City in the previous decade, where Tricia, the protagonist, and her radicalized friend Stella participate in sit-ins against the compulsory Cold War duck-and-cover drills.

In 1954, the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Agency inaugurated an annual civil defense preparedness drill, dubbed Operation Alert, in which everyone in big cities ("target areas"), like New York, was instructed to duck and cover for fifteen minutes, ostensibly to practice bracing themselves for an attack from the Soviet Union. During that same interval, federal alert systems throughout the country were tested, ...

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