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Good-bye and Amen


Good-bye and Amen

GOOD-BYE AND AMEN opens when the children of Laurus and Sydney Moss, protagonists of Beth Gutcheon’s LEEWAY COTTAGE, meet up at the cottage --- actually the large, rambling home of their youth --- to divvy up the possessions left behind by their deceased parents.

Eleanor, the oldest daughter, arrives with her husband, the down-to-earth, no-nonsense-allowed Bob, and their children, Adam, Annie, Nora and Charlesie. Monica, the neglected middle child, is there with her prickly husband, lawyer-turned-Episcopal priest Norman, their daughter, Edie, and Norman’s daughter, Sylvie. His son, Sam, is out on the coast.

The coast is also the home of younger brother Jimmy Moss, the prodigal son who made a hash, perhaps literally, of his early life but now is chief creative officer of a successful computer game company. He brings to the “middle-aged orphan’s lottery” his wife, Josslyn, a California girl whom the family thinks has more spirit than intellect, and their oddly named children, Regis and Virgil.

As the middle-aged children and their families settle into Leeway Cottage and some nearby satellite buildings, we follow their story through snippets of recollections arranged to read like nonfiction. So convincing are the stories that I found myself checking the book jacket several times to make sure it really was a novel.

Through bits and bites provided by the family, their friends and colleagues, and even a narrator from the world beyond, we follow along as the Moss children piece together their past, try to make sense of their parents’ seemingly mismatched marriage, reveal through their feelings about certain possessions a great deal about themselves, and travel along into the future.

Gutcheon is such a skillful writer that the recollections never seem forced, and they are doused with profundity and humor in equal measure: “Three grown children come together…to divide up the contents of the house they grew up in. Was there ever a scene more fraught with possibility for bloodless injuries, sepsis in wounds no sane person wants to reopen? They’d have been better off burning the house down. But they hadn’t. So few do.”

I disagree with the otherworldly narrator on that one: burning the house down wasn’t really necessary. The pains of the Moss children are not those caused by long-forgotten horrors or deadly secrets; they are the ordinary, but no less excruciating, kind experienced in the course of daily living with people who are flawed: the careless parent, the narcissistic spouse, the off-handed snatching away of something that meant the world to someone else. Long-resented betrayals that, it turns out, weren’t. Long-trusted relationships that turn out to be betrayals.

These are the thorny paths the Moss children trod through as they simultaneously build their lives and their insights into them.

Meanwhile, the elderly Mosses are adjusting to the afterlife in a manner that Gutcheon makes highly credible. Her masterful technique creates an absolute sense of realism in this book, which uses other novel ways to add to the illusion: an album of family portraits and snapshots purports to be the photo gallery Eleanor’s daughter Nora is putting together, and a clever ending section gives the “Biographies of Contributors” in such detail --- and with such wit --- that one has to remind oneself these are all creations of Gutcheon’s imagination. Who could seem more real than the first entry, Adam Applegate, who “attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then law school at the University of Virginia. He currently practices tax law in Washington, D.C., at the firm of O’Melveny & Myers. He is learning to cook Chinese food, which he especially enjoys because of all the manly chopping with big sharp knives.”

GOOD-BYE AND AMEN is a literary triumph that doesn’t get in its own way and can be enjoyed as a truly entertaining page-turner that tells a wallop of a story about a family that is unique and, then again, just like the rest of us.

Reviewed by Pat Morris on January 22, 2011

Good-bye and Amen
by Beth Gutcheon

  • Publication Date: July 22, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0060539070
  • ISBN-13: 9780060539078