Written by Jan Kline on January 16, 2012

The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Seeing the movie preview prompted me to seek out this book and quickly read it before it leaves the Palm. The novel, based on a short story, is Hemmings’ first, and its characters grabbed me from the first page. A distracted, work-obsessed father, Matt King, is forced to take a much more hands-on role with his two daughters when his daredevil wife Elizabeth falls into a coma after a boating accident. I know, it sounds like an after-school special or a soap opera Friday afternoon cliffhanger, but in Hemmings’ hands the comatose wife is not just a dramatic plot device, especially since we know from the beginning of the book that she’s dying. Matt is slower to accept this fact, and is then faced with telling his daughters, as well as their many friends.

But his grief gets even more complicated when his oldest daughter tells him that Elizabeth has been cheating on him: now anger and betrayal are added to the mix. He vacillates between wanting to give his wife’s lover the opportunity to say goodbye, and his more visceral urge to tell the guy off. Further complications ensue when he discovers the lover’s involvement in a family land sale decision that he is solely responsible for.

Here, Matt and the girls scatter Elizabeth’s ashes from an outrigger canoe off Waikiki:

The girls paddle slowly, and Scottie stops and rests her paddle across the hull. Her back is hunched and she looks at her lap and I wonder if she’s crying. She turns, holding up her hand. “Mom’s under my nails,” she says.

I look, and yes, there she is.

Alex turns and Scottie shows Alex her fingers. Alex shakes her head and gives Scottie this look that seems to say, Get used to it. She’ll be there for the rest of your life. Shell be there on birthdays, at Christmastime, when you get your period, when you graduate, have sex, when you marry, have children, when you die. She’ll be there and she won’t be there.

For a novel about the premature death of a mother of two, there are as many funny moments as sad ones. And I was happy to discover that the movie nailed the “dramedy” vibe perfectly; it was very true to the book. George Clooney has impeccable comic timing, and covers the tragic side of Matt’s character just as well. The whole cast is excellent, and the author even has a brief cameo as Matt’s secretary.

author photo: Monte Costa

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