The Descendents by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Kaui Hart Hemmings tackles some big questions in The Descendents: How do you say goodbye to someone you love? How do you put a family back together after someone dies? How do you take on roles you always counted on someone else to fill? And how can life possibly go one when the most important person in your life is gone?
Matthew King is facing all of these problems as his wife, Joanie, lingers in a coma that she will never come out of. Her living will states that she does not want to be kept alive on life support, so he has the job of preparing his two daughters and their family and friends for Joanie’s inevitable death. In the midst of this, 17-year-old Alex reveals to her father that Joanie was having an affair. In the middle of his grief, Matt takes it upon himself to find the man his wife was involved with and tell him of her impending death. He brings Alex, Alex’s “Not Boyfriend” and 10-year-old Scottie with him.
As the group travels, they work through their feelings about Joanie and her death in their own ways. Alex has to deal with feeling remorse at the death of a mother who was cold and judgmental, Scottie has to figure out appropriate ways to begin growing up in a world where her 12-year-old friend talks about letting boys “tongue her hole,” and Matt has to find a way to deal with the idea that the woman he loved may not have loved him back and becoming the sole caretaker of two daughters he barely knows or understands.
The Descendents is a very touching look at what it means to have to let go of someone you didn’t always love, or someone who wasn’t quite the person you thought they were, and how it can bring a family closer even as it hurts them. There’s also focus on Matt’s family and the fact that they have to make a decision about the land holdings that were passed down to them from Matt’s great-grandmother, a Hawaiian princess who married a white man. It’s distracting from the central plot of Joanie’s death, but showcases the fact that the world does not stop just because you want it to. Scottie and Alex are both characters in their own rights, with flaws and inappropriate reactions which are somehow entirely appropriate and right for their ages.
Kaui Hart Hemmings manages to write a book that is personal and affecting without being overly sappy. There are no perfect people here, and there’s something remarkably refreshing about that given that most books primarily about death feel the need to create saints. The Descendents finds a way to be honest about death, grieving, and the fact that neither of these things makes you a better person without feeling heavy or preachy. And it will make you want to visit Hawaii.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Rusty’s reviews, check out her blog, Rusty’s Ventures.
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