Bookmarks: Death and discovery 

One Vacant Chair explores the complicated ins and outs of family, love and life

One Vacant Chair

By Joe Coomer

Graywolf Press

273 pages, $37.95

When I’m looking for a book to review, I usually try and dig up something that has a west coast connection or would be particularly interesting to a reader from the area. But to be entirely honest, this one had none of the obvious elements that would make it a suitable read for a Whistlerite — it had nothing to do with the great outdoors, extreme sports, or controversial politics.

Rather, I was drawn to its underlying theme of family, and the fact that I was simply looking for a good, light read to enjoy during the dwindling days of summer at the lake. “One Vacant Chair” isn’t even a new book. Coomer, an American author who is well known for his award-winning work of non-fiction, Dream House, has published multiple works of fiction. One Vacant Chair was first published in September 2003, and is just being re-released in paperback format in October, so you can soon pick up a more compact version for a mere $15.50.

I was sold when I read the simple, yet compelling statement on the dust jacket: “It’s where you sit down that determines everything in life.”

Perhaps it was this romantic notion that sucked me in.

“I never choose a seat casually anymore, even when the room is empty. In college I sat down in a life-drawing class next to a boy with the prettiest blue shirt. It was the first time either one of us had seen a completely naked adult woman. I turned out to be his second. I met my first serious boyfriend at a wedding reception where there were no place cards. I sat between him and his mother and they both pulled on me from opposite directions for the next two years. I took a chair next to my former boss at a crowded conference table and he proceeded to run his claw along my inner thigh. I had to find a new job but he had to find a hand surgeon.”

The novel starts in Texas with the middle-aged protagonist, Sarah, returning for her grandmother’s funeral. The grandmother (who sounds like she was the mother of all crotchety old bitches) spent the past 26 years bedridden and cared for by Edna, her selfless and eccentric daughter. A cafeteria worker by day, Edna has a passion for art, but is only interested in one subject for all of her work — chairs. In fact, she’s spent years drawing and painting them, filling every nook and cranny of her mother’s house.

“Every wall in the house was hung with sketches, watercolours and paintings of chairs: simple pencil studies of foliate carvings on knees or stenciled crest rails, watercolours of single chairs in a meadow or parking lot, a flight of chairs winging through deep grass, an oil portrait of a stodgy banister-back paired with a low, bow-backed Windsor that had to have been influenced by Grant Wood’s American Gothic .”

After the funeral is over, Sarah decides to stay with her aunt Edna, rather than returning home to deal with her adulterous husband, whiny teenage children, unfulfilling career as a Christmas decoration designer, and an impending mid-life crisis.

The unlikely pair ends up embarking on their first international journey together, traveling to the moors of Scotland, of all places, to scatter Grandmother Hutton’s ashes. While the book is riddled with humour, the funny moments are balanced with the sad, and in the end, Coomer comes full-circle to the theme of family, again.

One thing is certain: the author has a knack for bringing his eccentric characters to life, using natural dialogue and detailed descriptions that make each person seemingly leap off the page. Take, for example, a scene from the funeral:

“Sister Roberts was handing each of them a single peppermint, holding her mouth wide as she did so, signaling to them to eat. ‘Sweet little birds,’ she rasped, in a voice as dry and light as the pages of a Bible… She wore a pink pillbox hat and matching short gloves. Her stockings hadn’t shrunk as much as her calves had. Her hose were so twisted from knee to ankle that it seemed she was screwed into her shoes.”

There are only a few moments later in the novel, specifically when Coomer is regaling the reader with visions of the lush countryside of Scotland, that his descriptions become somewhat repetitious and I found myself skipping over entire pages of text.

One Vacant Chair is full of larger than life characters and, at times, over-the-top plot twists that are sure to keep you absorbed in your reading until the sun sets and the cool breeze chases you away from the lakeside.


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