Roy Hill reviews Jennifer Paddock’s The Weight of Memory

April 15, 2012

The Weight of Memory
By Jennifer Paddock
251 pages
McAdam/Cage Publishing

By Roy Hill

Jennifer Paddock’s third novel, The Weight Of Memory, continues the stories of Leigh, Chandler and Sarah, three women from Fort Smith, Arkansas, introduced as teens in her first novel, A Secret Word, and developed further in Point Clear. Now in their mid-30s Leigh, Chandler and Sarah find their lives changing and weaving back together in unexpected ways in Destin, Florida, during 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

The characters are connected with each other by their shared memories of growing up in Fort Smith, which center on Trey, a popular high school football player whose fatal car accident they witnessed near their high school. Leigh, Chandler and Sarah all loved Trey in their particular fashion, and discovering each others’ ties to him almost 20 years later plays a part in the three women reconnecting.

However, that reconnection is at times awkward and strained. Paddock captures the peculiar combination of familiarity and strangeness that surfaces when people bound together by the memory of a powerful event reunite years later, after having led largely separate lives. Connected by their common past, they have all changed and followed their own paths, and are no longer the same people they used to be. Their friendships alternately wax and wane throughout the book, and always come back to Trey and Fort Smith. As important as Trey and Fort Smith are to understanding these characters, don’t worry if this happens to be the first of Paddock’s novels that you pick up. She skillfully sets the table so that the appetizer back stories lead you directly to the central plot’s main course, and you won‘t feel like you missed a thing.

Disparate as their lives have become, the three protagonists do share certain conflicts and complications which lead them to Florida. Leigh flees to Destin after a divorce. Sarah finds herself exiled to Destin from her crumbling marriage to a New York City stock trader, and Chandler arrives from nearby Point Clear, Alabama, where her own marriage to an aspiring writer is on the rocks. In addition to their romantic troubles, all three seek some sort of reconciliation to their fathers. Leigh searches for the true identity of her father, which her mother conceals from her. Sarah alternately fights with and reaches out to her multi-divorced father, a successful Fort Smith surgeon on his sixth trophy wife. And Chandler struggles to come to terms with her own father’s suicide years ago in Fort Smith, another resonating event from the past which ties the three women together.

Paddock’s novel creatively presents these timeless story lines — broken romances and troublesome fathers. All three protagonists work through to their separate ends in ways that seem realistic, yet not predictable. Leigh learns things about her father and herself that lead her to a new identity, and a home to which she never realized she had a rightful claim. Events lead Sarah to an unexpected future far beyond New York City, while Chandler faces the heartbreak and joy of divorce, and a new love with Walker, an almost-Olympic swimmer who studies marine science, and suffers from a rare disorder that causes unpredictable bouts of total amnesia. Fans of Paddock will recognize Walker from Point Clear, as it is his mysterious disappearance after Hurricane Ivan that figures largely in that novel’s plot.

Paddock’s own experiences in Fort Smith, New York City, and coastal Alabama add a realism and richness to the setting of the novel that can only come from a writer who has breathed the air and trod the earth of a certain postage stamp of land. Those who enjoy vacations along the Gulf Coast will recognize the Flora-Bama Lounge. Some from Fort Smith will undoubtedly identify with getting pulled over by a Roland police officer on a return trip from the Cherokee casino. These details and touches add to the realism and texture of the novel.

Of Paddock’s three novels, I like this one the best. Leigh, Chandler and Sarah have all been around enough to develop a depth and a complexity that’s satisfying. In A Secret Word, Paddock had to write them all as teenagers, and while their emotional conflicts sparked hot, raw and youthful, they lacked the solidity and presence that only comes from having lived, loved and lost a few times. In The Weight of Memory, they are women, not girls. All three reach optimistic conclusions, but not necessarily happy endings. While there is hope and promise, there is also uncertainty and even fear. All three characters know, from hard experience, that whatever security and happiness they have can easily be snatched away in the fleeting moment of a one-car accident, the reading of a text message, or the sound of a door closing as your father leaves the house.

And that’s the source from whence the novel draws its title and main theme — the dual nature of memories that weigh us down with sadness, but prop us up with comfort, that leave us tested, but at the same time strengthened and connected to those we’ve lost, and those still with us who share our memories.

Roy Hill is a native Arkansan and former college English instructor who now lives in Iowa.

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