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'Blame' Pushes Past Tragedy To Self-Discovery

When a character accidentally kills a mother and daughter within the first 20 pages of a novel, a reader might expect the author to dedicate the remaining pages to picking through the resultant mental debris.

But in her third novel, Blame, Michele Huneven has something far more interesting in mind than a redemptive tale about learning to take responsibility. Instead, this thoughtful, arresting novel uses a tragic event to explore the more provoking question of whether, in blaming ourselves for the obvious, we're avoiding our true responsibilities.

When we first meet Patsy MacLemoore, she's a ribald young history professor who adds heavy doses of scorn to her healthy appetite for drink. But the reader is allowed only a brief acquaintance with this witty gadabout. In short order, Patsy, who has already surrendered her license and spent a few nights in the drunk tank for past DUIs, sneaks out to her favorite watering hole and kills a mother and daughter while turning into her own driveway.

As Huneven takes us through the predictable consequences — two years of jail time, crippling guilt, stunted relationships and a lifetime membership in AA — it's impossible to not be scared straight by her vivid and disturbing depictions of Patsy's post-tragedy world. But even more frightening is Huneven's detailing of the harsh truths of the mind and how it can, when unchecked, incrementally warp our lives. As Patsy suffers through a withholding lover, a limited marriage, a compromised friendship and a derailed career, she can't change anything until she's made to see how much she has visited these punishments on herself.

And that's where Patsy begins to question whether the accident changed her life or if she was primed to change already. Watching The Age of Innocence with her husband Cal, she's unsettled when he comments that the story's wronged fiancee, May, would have managed just fine if Newland Archer had left her. Could Patsy's fundamental character — not forces in the outside world — be the true determinant of what happens to her?

Patsy soon questions her long-held belief that an old friend's maneuvering pushed her and Cal into their passionless marriage. Most important, she wonders if the accident was the trigger which caused her to stop drinking or if she was ready to sober up in any event. Blame closes with a revelation about the tragedy that, in a lesser novel, would change everything for the reader. But Huneven has already made her provoking point — that it's Patsy, not the world at large, that continually surprises.

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Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
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