The Weight of Memory: A Novel

Sep 27, 2012

“The Weight of Memory: A Novel”

Author: Jennifer Paddock

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing

Pages: 254

Price: $24.00 (Cloth)

Jennifer Paddock is a young woman who writes novels about young women.

Her first, “A Secret Word,” 2004, tells the stories of three girls, friends, growing up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Paddock’s home town. The three girls were close and were all in love privately with Trey, who died in a wreck.

Leigh is the least privileged of the three. After high school, it looks as though she will be stuck in Fort Smith in a small, unsatisfying life. Chandler, the daughter of an attorney, is off to New York and law school while Sarah, also in New York, is pursuing an acting career.

After a second novel, “Point Clear,” about a young woman writer, Caroline, who clandestinely remains in the Grand Hotel during Hurricane Ivan, Paddock has returned to the lives of the Fort Smith three.

When this novel, told in turns by the three, opens it is 2005; the girls are 35 years old. Leigh has moved to beautiful Destin, Florida, divorced from her Fort Smith husband, and is waitressing at the Bistro Bijoux.

Sarah, her acting dreams behind her, is now living in Destin in her rich father’s big vacation house and working in a dress shop. She has separated from her banker husband, Ryan, who is still in New York, and invites Leigh to share the house.

Chandler, meanwhile, has stopped working as a New York lawyer and is working at a bookstore in Fairhope, “where all the trash cans are… custom designed,” and teaching tennis at the Grand Hotel. Her husband, Mark, has published one unsuccessful novel, “Drowning on Dry Land,” is selling cars, and is having an affair. Her marriage is nearly over.

The three young women reunite and ride out Hurricane Katrina at Sarah’s place, but since the storm goes far west of them, nothing dramatic happens. They talk about the past, realizing that they remember some events differently: memories are skewed. They also hope, through having this experience together, to create shared memories for the future.

As the title suggests, the philosophical thrust of this novel is about dealing with the past, or the lack of it.

Leigh has no idea who her father was. Her mother, “who smokes Marlboro Reds and drinks too much and sleeps with strange men,” won’t even tell Leigh her father’s name. Feeling ungrounded, “weightless,” she will search for her missing family history.

As Chandler’s marriage to Mark disintegrates, she falls in love with handsome, hunky Walker Galloway, a graduate student at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a championship swimmer with a bizarre neurological disorder. She learns from her reading it is episodic psychogenic amnesia. Walker can remember scientific information but has recurring attacks of amnesia about his own biography; for long spells, he has no personal memories. Chandler wonders whether this makes Walker freer, not being burdened by the past. Plus they get to start their relationship fresh every little while, as in the Drew Barrymore movie “Fifty First Dates.” But she is a little disconcerted when he can’t remember who she is.

Generally speaking, it’s the men in this book who are forgettable and forgetful and forgotten.

The ‘‘weight of memory” theme is useful as an organizing principle but does not run deep. Chandler reads about amnesia in books like Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and passes on what she’s learned.

But Paddock knows the details of her fictional territory; she knows her hurricanes, she knows her girls down to their sandals and sundresses and she can tell a story.