Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: "There Must Be Some Mistake" by Frederick Barthelme

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Wallace Webster is a 50-something retiree (although not of his own choosing), a former architect and graphic artist living in Kemah, Texas, in a condo development called Forgetful Bay. Living alone after his divorce, Wallace's quirky college-aged daughter visits periodically, and he also has a somewhat complicated relationship with Jilly, a younger former coworker. He's not quite sure how he feels about Jilly—it's more than friendship but given their age difference, he doesn't know where her interests lie, and they tend to banter quite a bit without ever really addressing the issue.

Strange things seem to be happening in Forgetful Bay. Wallace's next door neighbor dies in a car accident, and then shortly thereafter, another resident, Chantal White, gets doused with blue paint in a mysterious attack. Then a woman is found dancing in the driveway of the condo association president. As the neighborhood starts to wonder whether these events are connected, Wallace begins a strange affair with Chantal, and learns she is a far more complicated woman than he first imagined, with a checkered past.

As further incidents happen in the neighborhood, Wallace starts to reflect on his past, his relationships, and what his future holds, particularly as his ex-wife resurfaces as well. He starts to wonder whether he should try to pursue a relationship with Jilly, or if watching the relationships disintegrating around him means he shouldn't risk trying again.

"If you ask me, there are many things to love in this world, and if you don't love something, your life's probably not worth the napkin it's printed on."

Wallace also finds himself more involved in the investigation of the events occurring in his neighborhood, by virtue of a conversation he had with the disgraced former president of the condo association, and at the behest of a quirky police investigator. Is there a link between all the incidents, or are they all just a series of coincidences?

I've never read anything that Frederick Barthelme has written before, but it's easy to see why he's a well-regarded author. I liked the layered complexity he gave his characters, and felt that much of the dialogue, while a little too clever at times, was fun to read. My main criticism of There Must Be Some Mistake was that I didn't know what this book wanted to be—a meditation on a life lived and what's left to live, a quirky not-quite-murder mystery, or simply an introspective character study. The chapters were fairly brief and didn't quite flow one into another; they were more like vignettes of Wallace's life and what was going on around him.

This was an interesting, quirky read, kind of a lighter version of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy. I just wish Barthelme gave us a little more weight and introspection, and a little less quirk.

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